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The essential worker trap

It’s hard to get unemployment benefits if you’ve been deemed “essential.”

Cleaning crews work inside an empty Hart Senate Office Building.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The general rule of unemployment has always been that you can’t collect benefits if you quit your job. But what about during a pandemic, when going to work means putting your life at risk?

Apparently, the rule still applies.

In late April, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, declared that employees who decline to return to work won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits, even if they’re concerned about contracting the coronavirus. It’s a “voluntary quit,” Reynolds explained, whatever the reasoning. So librarians, gym instructors, restaurant employees, retail associates, racetrack workers, and others in the 77 Iowa counties Reynolds allowed to reopen May 1 have a choice: Protect their paychecks, or protect their health.

“You’re just caught between a rock and a hard place. What do you do? We’re not going to qualify for unemployment now that the salon’s opening back up, so you feel forced to go back to work,” Terri, a hairstylist in Georgia — which began reopening its economy in late April — recently told me. (Terri asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy.)

Some people expressed outrage at Reynolds’s stance, noting that it puts workers in a terrible bind. It’s a scenario that’s been playing out for essential workers for weeks, and one that’s about to play out for workers across the country as states begin reopening their economies even as the coronavirus crisis continues to rage on. Many Americans aren’t comfortable going to work right now, but most don’t have much of a choice.

There are no easy answers here. Being asked to go to work and risk catching an unpredictable and deadly virus is terrifying. And part of the reason the federal government expanded unemployment insurance during the pandemic, adding an extra $600 a week through July, is to allow people to remain home, stay safe, and stop the spread. But many states, right or wrong, are starting to open their economies, and that entails asking people to come back to work. You can’t reopen your hair salon if there’s no one there to do hair.

The burden isn’t being distributed evenly. Many essential jobs, as well as those in industries hit the hardest by coronavirus layoffs, are low-paid ones. Unemployment insurance is indeed a more lucrative and safer scenario for these workers, many of whom don’t have employer-subsidized health insurance. In addition, many of these jobs are disproportionately held by women, people of color, and those who are already vulnerable.

Unemployment insurance doesn’t have an “afraid of dying” clause

In March, President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, a $2.2-trillion stimulus package. Part of that was used to beef up unemployment insurance to the tune of $600 a week through the end of July, on top of whatever state benefits people receive. It also expanded the pool of potential recipients to the self-employed, freelancers, and contract workers, all of whom are usually ineligible to collect.

Speaking with essential workers in recent weeks, issues with the CARES Act’s expanded benefits became clear. First, it was creating some animosity with those workers, who had rightly noticed they would be making more on unemployment than they were at their jobs. Second, they knew they couldn’t quit and apply for it. Generally, unemployment benefits go to workers who are fired, furloughed, or laid off, not to those who quit — even if you’re a grocery store worker making $10 an hour who didn’t exactly sign up to put your life on the line.

“If I say, look, I want to be at home with my family, then, okay well you lost your job and you can’t collect unemployment,” Kristi, a Family Dollar worker in Georgia, recently told me.

One hospital social worker in upstate New York described to me recently sitting in a car with a coworker who was crying over her anxiety about going to work, worried she might infect her grandmother. She didn’t want to quit and lose her source of income, but also couldn’t be fired. “You’re stuck in a hard place,” the social worker said. “You’re coming in every day and thinking you’re going to get sick or give it to someone you care about.”

As nonessential workers across the country are being recalled to their jobs, they’re experiencing a similar scenario: Sure, you can quit or decline to go back, but that means no more unemployment insurance.

Many states offer partial unemployment benefits, so if someone’s hours are reduced, they may get some benefits, explained Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. But if not, it’s a tough spot. “If we’re talking about, ‘I was called back and I’m given a full-time schedule,’ it is correct that if you quit voluntarily in most unemployment insurance programs, then you’re not eligible,” she said.

The CARES Act does extend benefit eligibility for certain coronavirus-related circumstances, including workers who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, or live with (or are taking care of someone) who has; workers who are the primary caregiver of children whose schools are closed because of Covid-19; and workers who have become the primary source of financial support for a household in which the former head of the household died of Covid-19, among others.

But for many people, those provisions don’t apply. “As it stands, yes, if people are recalled to work, they are not supposed to be getting unemployment benefits because they’re not unemployed, and whether they like it or not, they need to return,” said Susan Houseman, vice president and director of research at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Workers have recourse, but not a lot

Workers have options if they feel unsafe, including contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and their state agencies. “Will OSHA be responsive? They’re not well funded, and not at the state level, either,” Houseman said.

Congressional Republicans are pushing to include liability protections for businesses in future rounds of coronavirus legislation. That could complicate the situation even further, as businesses could feel less pressure to ensure the safety of their employees (and customers).

Unemployment insurance guidelines vary state by state, but for workers, it’s still try at your own risk.

A spokesperson for California’s Employment Development Department told me that people may be eligible to collect benefits if they quit work because of child care needs or choose to stay home due to health conditions or concerns about coronavirus exposure, but that it will be determined on a case-by-case basis via individual phone interviews.

A spokesperson for the New York Department of Labor told me that workers should file a complaint on the department’s website if they feel unsafe, and that fear-related cases will be determined on a case-by-case basis. An Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson said quitting voluntarily, generally speaking, would normally disqualify you, but added that for Covid-19-related claims, someone would qualify if they’re medically quarantined by a doctor or government official.

“If someone is fearful of going back to work, we are encouraging employees to work with their employers on a safe back-to-work plan,” said Kersha Cartwright, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor in Georgia, one of the first states to start reopening its economy. She acknowledged that the issue of people who are wary of returning to work is a “gray area.”

There are ways to address some of these issues through policy and enforcement. Democrats and labor leaders are pushing the US Labor Department to ensure federal safety guidelines for worker protections are in place and enforceable before states reopen. And Democrats and some Republicans are advocating for essential workers to receive hazard pay, so at the very least, they’re being compensated for the added risk they’re taking on.

When expanded unemployment benefits were being negotiated, some Republicans publicly fretted that they would be so generous, people wouldn’t want to go back to work. And indeed, they had a point that the additional benefits would cause tension. But the tension among workers generally isn’t about laziness, it’s that they are legitimately afraid for their health and their lives, concerned that the benefits will expire as soon as economies reopen, and anxious about choosing between staying safe and getting paid. So, we’re in a coronavirus-induced economy where there is a dichotomy within the working class: those who can work from home and those who cannot. And those who cannot are being asked to carry an enormous burden.

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