March 1, 2021

Volume XI, Number 60

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March 01, 2021

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New Unemployment Executive Order Gives Benefits to Workers Who Fear COVID-19 at Work

In his first days in office, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a flurry of executive orders. Notably, President Biden instructed the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to issue new instructions to state unemployment agencies that will allow individuals to claim unemployment benefits even if they quit their jobs because they felt unsafe working during the pandemic. According to the White House fact sheet, the executive order states:

Guarantee that No American Has to Choose Between Paying Their Bills and Keeping Themselves and Their Families Safe from COVID-19. In 2019, 43% of American households reported having at least one member with pre-existing conditions, many of whom may have a heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID. President Biden believes that workers should have the right to safe work environments and that no one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their own or their families’ health. As one of many measures to help keep workers and their families’ safe throughout the pandemic, the President is asking the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.

Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, persons who qualify for unemployment benefits are again receiving additional funds in excess of state unemployment amounts. If individuals qualify for $1 in state unemployment, they are also eligible to receive an additional $300 per week. The additional funds will be available until the end of March 2021. However, President Biden will likely seek to extend the termination date from March until at least September 2021 as part of his anticipated stimulus bill.

The executive order does not specify the criteria to determine who will be eligible for additional unemployment benefits. To date, the DOL has not issued new guidance. Key points for the DOL to define and clarify will include what constitutes a valid fear of contracting COVID-19 at work and are there any qualifiers for the employee, such as an underlying condition. In short, will fear alone be enough to qualify for unemployment benefits?

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© 2020, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 27
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Ashley Prickett Cuttino Employment Attorney Ogletree Deakins
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Ashley concentrates her practice in management-side employment litigation, including defending claims against wage and hour, discrimination, wrongful discharge, and breach of contract.  She also has a broader general litigation practice that has allowed her to defend clients in complex toxic tort actions, class actions, asbestos personal injury defense, construction defect cases, and FELA claims for railroad clients.  Ashley’s specialty is complex litigation, class actions and multi-plaintiff litigation. She also advises clients in the area of traditional labor law and has defended both...

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