President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday ordering the Department of Labor to issue guidance that clarifies “workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.”
Generally, you can’t refuse what’s considered “suitable work,” whether it’s a new job offer or a call to return to a reopened workplace, and still receive unemployment insurance. In more traditional times, suitable work is thought of as a job that matches your skill set and pays a similar rate as your old one.
Under the Trump administration, states, local governments and employers were often left to determine what constituted as a safe work environment free of risks to workers’ health and safety during the Covid pandemic. Recent moves from the Biden White House aim to formalize a national standard.
As with existing protocol, new federal guidance will still require workers to demonstrate how their work environment places their health in jeopardy, that they’ve done something to raise the issue with their employer to enforce an improved standard, and that their employer has chosen to not act on recommended health and safety guidance, such as that from the CDC, local or state regulations — and soon, federal guidance on workplace health and safety.
For example, you can’t just walk into your work facility, see that no one’s wearing a mask, walk off the job and later file for unemployment. However, if you approach your boss about enforcing universal mask-wearing to minimize the spread of the virus, and they decline to do so, you may have just cause for refusing unsafe work that places your health in jeopardy and qualifying for unemployment benefits while you look for a new job.