Can employees keep collecting unemployment benefits if they’re called back to work? It’s complicated

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(MGN Photo)(KWQC)
Published: May. 13, 2020 at 5:24 PM AKDT
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As Alaska’s economy reopens, thousands of workers will be called back to work.

, if a person rejects a suitable full-time job offer they become ineligible for unemployment benefits. But, there are exemptions.

Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz of the Department of Labor says that employees would need to show “good cause” to keep receiving benefits if they’ve received a job offer. “Good cause could include sickness or similar extenuating circumstances,” Muñoz wrote by email.

The Department of Labor makes eligibility determinations on a case-by-case basis. “There is flexibility built in to the determinations given, but federal law requires that individuals be available for full-time work,” Muñoz said, explaining that the state needs to comply with federal unemployment insurance guidelines.

The department would not disclose what factors are being used to determine if someone can keep receiving benefits if they’ve received a job offer.

For low-income Alaskans, there have been many questions asked about unemployment benefits and housing.

“We are receiving a lot of calls,” said Nikole Nelson, the executive director of the Alaska Legal Services Corp. The nonprofit provides legal help for Alaskans who can’t afford an attorney.

Nelson echoed the Department of Labor’s analysis that workers can’t reject a job offer and stay on unemployment benefits, in most instances. But, she detailed some possible exemptions: “Such as you didn’t have access to childcare, or the workplace wasn’t suitable, so you didn’t feel safe there, or you are caring for a family member.”

Eric Salinger, a staff attorney at ALSC, took to Facebook on Wednesday to discuss the complexities of the current unemployment situation. He explained that he couldn’t give specific legal advice without knowing the details of a case.

More generally, Salinger said if a worker feels like they can’t return to their job, they need to document those claims exhaustively or they risk losing their benefits.

That would mean, for example, proving that an employee is the primary carer of a child and no other help is available. Or, it could mean getting a doctor’s note to show why returning to work is not safe for the specific employee, Salinger said.

Questions about feeling comfortable returning to work during the coronavirus pandemic have been asked of ALSC attorneys frequently. “This is a really big one right now,” Salinger said.

He explained that employees are expected to work with their supervisors if they don’t feel safe to see if simple changes can be made. For example, requesting plexiglass shields be installed or that face masks be provided.

One question to the nonprofit is getting a more definitive answer.

In mid-April, unemployed Alaskans became eligible to

on top of state benefits until July 25. For some workers, staying on unemployment benefits could see them make more money than working.

Nelson said many callers to ALSC ask: “What if you end up making more money on unemployment, is that a valid reason for declining to return to the workforce?” The answer from Nelson is clear: “It is not.”

Bars and restaurants are seeing restrictions eased and more people coming back to work.

Silvia Villamides, the executive director of the Alaska Hospitality Retailers, says that both employers and employees are reaching out with concerns. On the business side, Villamides says employers are reporting some workers are refusing to come back to work.

The Department of Labor did not have statistics on-hand for how many of those cases have come across its desks. Employers contacted by KTUU did not want to go on-the-record with their concerns.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said she is aware that some workers are refusing job offers to stay on unemployment benefits. “It’s a big risk in turning down gainful employment,” she said.

Workers could lose their benefits or be charged with fraud. “It’s a very serious offence,” Spohnholz said.

With unemployment high, burning a bridge with an employer could also be risky. “Jobs are going to be in short supply,” Spohnholz said.

“There are two sides to this equation,” Villamides explained, describing that some employees have reached out saying that they simply can’t work. Common concerns are availability of

and whether workplaces are safe.

Villamides says there have also been concerns about availability of public transportation after the Municipality of Anchorage suspended

in early April.

“We are currently working with the Mayor’s office on when we’ll reinstate bus service,” said Bart Rudolf, the planning and communications manager with the Public Transportation Department “We’re currently working on a plan to restore service that will have additional safety measures in place for our bus operators and riders.”

A date has not been determined when People Mover will operate again.

For employees returning on reduced schedules, Spohnholz says the state can help fill the gap. House Bill 308 empowers the Department of Labor to offer part-time employment benefits during the pandemic.

“Some employees could still be eligible for part-time wage replacement,” Spohnholz said.

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