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Iowa Gov't.: Refusing to Return to Work During Crisis Voids Benefits

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020   

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa officials say furloughed workers who resist calls to return to their jobs during the pandemic run the risk of losing their unemployment benefits. The warning comes amid some workers' fears of becoming infected as economic activity picks up again.

Later this week, Gov. Kim Reynolds will allow dozens of counties to partially reopen certain businesses. With a few exceptions, the state has said workers who are called back but refuse to go will be ineligible for jobless benefits.

Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of the group Workplace Fairness, said the state has the right to take this action -- but it doesn't look good in terms of making workers feel protected.

"I definitely understand the reasons why some states want to reopen the economy sooner rather than later, but there still has to be a level of empathy and humanity," he said. "It's not like you've found a silver bullet and you've solved COVID-19."

Iowa is seeing a faster spread of the virus in certain counties, with more than 6,300 confirmed cases to date. Iowa Workforce Development has said someone who refuses to return to work over infection fears will be considered a "voluntary quit." Exceptions include workers who already have tested positive or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or who have a family member who's been diagnosed.

The state has cited the potential for fraud as furloughed workers receive additional unemployment benefits from the federal government during the pandemic. It's calling on companies to report instances of work refusal. However, Ndjatou said employers must be mindful of worker-protection laws they need to follow, and he hopes they offer flexibility when easing their staff back in.

"Maybe putting people in part-time work," he said, "just so that you can play around with certain safe precautions."

Under the governor's order, businesses such as restaurants that are reopening only will be allowed half capacity. Nebraska has issued a similar warning about work refusal, but advised those with underlying conditions to ask not to be recalled, so they can keep their benefits.

A link for reporting such job-offer declines is online at iowaworkforcedevelopment.gov.


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