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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Antonio Bettini, an employee at High Point Climbing Gym, at his home on Tuesday. Bettini is worried about returning to work because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As businesses gradually reopen and ask their employees to return to work, they are finding that some would rather not because of the ongoing global pandemic — at least, not yet.

"I don't think it's a good idea to be opening this early," said Antonio Bettini, a route setter at High Point Climbing Gym who said he received a text on April 22 instructing him to return to work to prepare for a May opening. "Just based on the nature of the business, this is not a good idea."

Bettini said his immediate supervisor left him with the impression that he would be considered a voluntary resignation if he did not return, and would no longer be eligible for unemployment. But High Point co-owner John O'Brien said the gym will be using federal Paycheck Protection Program funds to pay furloughed employees, and they'll have a job whenever they are ready to return.

"It's kind of a really polarized time, but I think that from our standpoint, we want our employees to come back," O'Brien said. "We have the [Paycheck Protection Program] money, but right now if they don't feel comfortable coming back, that's their prerogative, and they don't have to come back right now."

The Tennessee Department of Labor offers clear guidelines on the question of whether employees who decline to return to work will remain eligible for unemployment, spokesman Chris Cannon said.

"Unemployment claimants called back by their employers must return to work," he said by email. "To remain eligible for unemployment benefits, federal law requires individuals who have been placed on a temporary layoff related to the COVID-19 health emergency must return to work if called back."

The National Federation of Independent Businesses wants to eliminate any ambiguity, and is asking state and federal leaders to take several steps, including ensuring workers who decline to return to work during the pandemic do not receive unemployment benefits.

"When employers are ready to go, and the employee is saying 'No, I'll stay here until the end of July because I'm making more money at home,' that's problematic for businesses," said Jim Brown, the Tennessee state director for the federation. "That's inhibiting their ability to get moving and operating again."

For Bettini, the issue is one of safety, he said. His father is terminally ill, and Bettini visits him periodically to bring him groceries. He doesn't want to risk infecting him, or other family members he lives with.

"Our plan as a family was, we have enough with the stimulus and the way we worked out our bills to sit for another month or so," he said.

In theory, Bettini could make several times his pay at High Point through the additional $600 a week in unemployment from federal stimulus funds. But so far, he hasn't seen any unemployment benefits at all, though he applied for them in late March.

"I'm assuming I'll get my unemployment at some time," he said. "So far, this is all hypothetical."

The question of whether the use of Paycheck Protection Program funds to cover the pay of High Point employees will mean they might lose eligibility for unemployment benefits is one the business owners are still trying to figure out, O'Brien said.

"It's going to be difficult to unravel that, when they're making more on unemployment," he said. "The intent behind the [Paycheck Protection Program] was to get people back to work."

An avalanche of unemployment claims and unprecedented federal bailout programs have left employers and employees in unfamiliar territory. Under normal circumstances, for example, people on unemployment must prove that they are actively seeking work, but that requirement has been temporarily suspended.

Cole Iler said he has been asked to return to his job in maintenance at Black Creek Golf Club, which will reopen Friday, but he worries about catching or spreading coronavirus.

"They sent out an email or a text and said, 'Hey, we're opening back up on Friday, who's available to work?'" Iler said. "I texted back and said I don't feel comfortable or safe going back to work right now, especially since everything is opening back up, and I think it will get worse instead of better."

Iler said it wasn't clear whether he was technically laid off when the club told him there was no work for him just over two weeks ago, and he has not had any response to his application for unemployment benefits.

Doug Stein, president of the golf club, said the business will use funds from the Paycheck Protection Program to pay employees who have not had any work for the last two weeks.

The club is planning to reopen, but taking extensive measures to keep distance between members and employees. Any employees who don't show up for reopening won't be paid, but their jobs will be waiting for them when they're ready, Stein said.

"We'll accommodate anyone who doesn't want to come back," he said. "When this started, the first thing I told my team was the No. 1 priority is the safety of employees and members."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.

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