What happens to your unemployment benefits if you refuse to go back to work?

More than 33 million Americans are out-of-work as a result of the coronavirus-induced lockdown throughout the nation, but even as states begin to ease stay-at-home measures and allow businesses to open up, some workers remain hesitant to return to their jobs.

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One of the reasons? They’re making more money on unemployment.

The CARES Act, the massive $2.2 trillion relief package signed into law at the end of March, not only broadened which workers were eligible to receive unemployment, opening jobless benefits to the self-employed and independent contractors, but it sweetened the pot with an extra $600 per week through July 31.

Benefits vary state by state — the maximum weekly benefit check in Massachusetts is $823, while the maximum in Mississippi is just $235 — but the enhanced benefits still mean that roughly half of American workers stand to earn more on unemployment than they did at their jobs. The average weekly payment to a laid-off worker will likely rise to about $978, compared to the $378 the Labor Department said was paid out on average last year. That’s nearly double the average weekly pay in the food industry, about $500 nationwide for full-time workers.


The conundrum now is that even as states try to reopen their economies, the sweetened unemployment benefits are hampering some businesses’ efforts to recall workers.

Still, in order to be eligible for the extra $600, workers must be unable to do their job as a direct result of the virus outbreak — like having a sick family member; or the inability to commute because of the quarantine.

“Unemployed workers typically have to attest each week that they haven’t refused an offer of work to keep receiving benefits,” payroll processing firm ADP wrote. “Keep in mind that employees may still be eligible for unemployment benefits if they refused the offer for ‘good cause.’”

Good cause is defined by state law; but, for instance, if your employer substantially changes the job, hours or pay, the employee may still be able to collect unemployment benefits -- despite receiving an offer to begin working again.

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When you file biweekly unemployment claims, you will be asked whether you have received a job offer. The Unemployment Compensation office, however, may reach out to employers to verify your status. If the government determines that you received a job offer -- but you said you had not on your application -- you could be out of work and may lose your benefits.

“When an employee refuses to return to work, employers should ask the worker why they are refusing. If the reason is not one of the justifications provided for in the CARES Act, then the employer may consider reporting to the relevant state workforce agency that the worker has been given the opportunity to return to work and has refused the offer,” Peter Goetschel, an attorney at Vinson & Elkins, said. “In fact, some state workforce agencies require employers to report these occurrences of refusal.”

When businesses reopen, they must follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were designed to protect employees from COVID-19. That includes conducting daily health checks; implementing policies for social distancing in the building; and providing workers with hand sanitizer and soap.

If businesses adhere to the guidelines, employees cannot refuse the work and still remain on unemployment, experts say. According to the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, a general fear of virus exposure is not a valid reason to not return to work or quit your job and to secure unemployment benefits.

Generally, if you reject an employer’s call to return to work, then you have quit your job. And if you quit your job, you are no longer eligible for unemployment compensation.

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