Lee administration: Tennesseans risk losing jobless benefits if they refuse bosses' directive to return to work

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Flanked by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, right, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Gov. Bill Lee, center, speaks during a press conference at Wilson Air Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Violent storms and an EF-3 tornado tore through eastern Hamilton County and Northwest Georgia Sunday night and Monday morning.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee's administration on Monday said that Tennesseans who refuse to heed bosses' orders to return to work at now-reopening businesses risk losing unemployment insurance benefits they have been receiving during the coronavirus pandemic.

State Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord's office warned the "refusal to work could jeopardize unemployment benefits" provided by the state and federal governments under Congress' Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

It's unclear how many of the 307,327 Tennesseans who were receiving unemployment benefits as of last week could be affected. Coronavirus concerns have sent unemployment soaring in Tennessee and the rest of the U.S. to a post-World War II high.

Tennessee's press for employees to return to work comes as Lee, a Republican, seeks to revive economic activity after earlier directives to shut down nonessential businesses in an effort to tamp down spread of COVID-19.

As a result, businesses in areas ranging from retail stores to barber shops are open or about to be open in most areas of the state. Many governors from both parties are seeking to restart economic activity to varying degrees in an economy that's been flattened by the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders.

Requirements to qualify

The Lee administration outlined Monday what it says are the COVID-19 eligibility requirements to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provided through the federal CARES Act. They include people who:— Are diagnosed with COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking diagnosis.— Have a member of the household who is diagnosed with COVID-19.— Are providing care for a family or household member diagnosed with COVID-19.— Are the primary caregiver for a child whose school or care facility closed due to COVID-19.— Are unable to reach their place of employment due to an imposed quarantine, or because they are advised by a medical provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19.— Were scheduled to start new employment and cannot reach the workplace as a direct result of COVID-19.— Became the major breadwinner because the head of household died from COVID-19.— Quit their job as a direct result of COVID-19.— Had their place of employment closed as a direct result of COVID-19.— Meet any additional criteria specified by U.S. Secretary of Labor.Employees and employers can find answers to commonly asked questions about returning to work on the department’s website: www.tn.gov/workforce.

Monday's action underscores McCord's recent warning about the potential loss of benefits during an April 28 news conference with Lee on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If you're offered a job, if your employer opens back up, then you stand a chance of losing those benefits if you don't have a clear reason not to go back," McCord said.

That came just six days after McCord on April 22 told reporters "right now we have federal guidance that tells us that, yes, that job refusal if somebody's afraid to go to work they can still collect the unemployment benefits as they go - at least the federal piece."

In response to recent questions posed by the Times Free Press as to whether the decision applied only to loss of the state's portion of the unemployment benefit or also to the $600 federal portion provided under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provision, McCord spokesman Chris Cannon said the CARES Act "stipulates a claimant must receive $1 in weekly benefits from one of the [state] unemployment programs to be eligible for the additional weekly $600 FPUC benefit."

George Wentworth, senior counsel with the nonpartison National Employment Law Project, said last week in a Times Free Press interview that employers calling workers back to work "is a big issue going on across the country as states are starting to try to reopen their economies."

Wentworth said that "basically, once you've been laid off under normal conditions, when you're recalled to the job you used to have, that's what we call suitable work and you normally have to accept or lose your unemployment benfits.

"However," Wentworth said, "the kind of presumption that your old job is suitable goes away if there's any sort of new health risks. And in most jobs right now that's the case."

Wentworth said workers can argue that a job offered to them may not be suitable under certain circumstances.

"First of all, is your employer following the federal guidelines for safe distancing practices or ensuring they're doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace?" Wentworth said.

He cited as a hypothetical example circumstances involving 10 factories. Nine of the plants require employees wear face masks, but one does not.

"I think [the worker] has got a good case to say that work is unsuitable, it's a risk to my health," Wentworth said. "That may be even more the case if they're living with somebody who's in the high risk category" or have compromised immunity themselves.

Noting "these are different times in terms of unemployment insurance," Wentworth said, "I think this being politicized in a lot of places. But I think a one size fits all, everybody has to take their old job back or lose their unemployment benefits, I think is wrong on the law."

The federal CARES Act provides provisions for individuals who have traditionally been ineligible for state unemployment benefits, but Commissioner McCord's office said "those provisions do not apply to employees apprehensive about returning to work because of health concerns."

Tennessee's unemployment compensation trust fund in April alone paid out $226.4 million in jobless benefit claims to workers idled during the coronavirus pandemic as pressures mount on a once-$1.2 billion pool that was already below federally recommended solvency levels.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimated that based on 2020 fund solvency levels and initial and continuing claims as of April 4, Tennessee's fund could last 16 weeks before running out of money.

If the fund runs dry, it would force the state to seek a loan from the federal government or face raising unemployment tax rates on businesses already slammed by the economic fallout of the virus. And because Tennessee falls below the U.S. Department of Labor's recommended funding balance, the state would have to pay interest on any loans it gets from Uncle Sam.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-424-0484. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.