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You Don’t Get to Collect Unemployment Because You Are Scared

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

It is always great when the media reports news that isn’t really news. Reports are surfacing today that some awful Republican governors are telling citizens if they are recalled to work and refuse to go, they will be ineligible for unemployment. This is not startling and will most likely be the case in blue states as well. Of course, you won’t hear about that.

Unemployment is a system for people who are able to work but either out of work for reasons beyond their control or going through a period of reduced work because of reduced business operations. The entire goal of the Paycheck Protection Program was to keep employees attached to their employers so they could seamlessly return to work when operations resumed. The unemployment enhancement was for those who may be furloughed during a government-required shutdown by their employer. 

In almost every state, people who quit, are fired for cause or out of work due to physical disability are not eligible for unemployment payments. In most companies if you refuse to show up for work, you are considered to have quit. So, if your employer calls you and tells you when to report and you say no, you have effectively quit your job.

There is no reason for this to change for the resumption of operations now that governments are lifting restrictions for the vast majority of working Americans. You would know this if we had an honest media that explained deaths for healthy people under 55 are effectively zero. You may catch it and be asymptomatic. You may catch it and have what amounts to a really bad flu. According to the CDC:

This first preliminary description of outcomes among patients with COVID-19 in the United States indicates that fatality was highest in persons aged:

≥85, ranging from 10% to 27%,

3% to 11% among persons aged 65–84 years,

1% to 3% among persons aged 55-64 years,

<1% among persons aged 20–54 years,

and no fatalities among persons aged ≤19 years.

This assessment has had few exceptions to date and is still informative for public and employer policy development. If you are under 55 and otherwise healthy, go to work. Your employer doesn’t need to hold your position open and the government should not need to support you. There are over 20 million people out of work with some portion having employers who will not be resuming operations. You most likely can and should be replaced by someone prepared to work. 

This is not to say we don’t have some loopholes that should probably be closed to provide assistance to those for whom it is truly not safe to return to work. The Task Force guidance still recommends those who are over 65 and those with preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19 continue extreme social distancing. We have some safety nets and options for that but might need to plug a few holes. 

Anyone who works for an employer with more than 50 employees can apply for the Family Medical Leave Act. This should be specifically expanded to include a physician certifying that an employee has a serious health condition that puts them at significant risk if they contract COVID-19. This can be done with a regulation form the Department of Health that requires this to be included. It will provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the employee. 

Some employees are eligible for short term disability payments through their employer. Just as the administration encouraged health insurance providers to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment differently, they should pressure short term disability providers to provide coverage for severe risks related to COVID-19 with a physician’s certification. 

There are also remedies under the American’s with Disabilities Act. If an employee can perform the essential functions of their job with modification to protect them from contracting COVID-19, this should be granted. Perhaps they need to wear PPE that other employees are not required to wear. They may need to come out of a cubicle and be given a designated workspace. If able they should be given the option to telecommute even if other employees are returning to the office. 

However, the federal government spun up the Paycheck Protection Program to assist employers to keep their employees on payroll. They enhanced unemployment benefits to prevent a serious reduction in income for those who were laid off. It is possible they need to look at spinning up a companion program to Social Security Disability Insurance to support the most vulnerable members of the workforce until they can safely return to work if they have exhausted the options currently on the books. 

All indications are this would be a short-term program. Within the next three months there are reasons to believe that therapeutics and effective treatment protocols will be refined. Gilead announced today that their drug remdesivir appears to be effective if given early in the diagnosis. Clinicians at Providence Cedars-Sinai are refining promising protocols to deal with some of the most severe cases of the illness.  A team of researchers in the U.K. has modified a coronavirus vaccine under development prior to the pandemic and are able to accelerate trials. If it works, it could be available by September.

Ultimately innovation will get us out of this. However, until then those who can return to work absolutely should. Irrational fear is not an excuse no matter what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says. Those who are most vulnerable among us need to continue to be supported through the enhancement of current programs and innovative solutions to provide income until the threat COVID-19 poses to them is largely eradicated. 

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