How Does COVID-19 Affect Turning Down a Job and Still Getting Unemployment Benefits?

How the Pandemic Impacts Turning Down Work and Unemployment Compensation

Many workers unavoidably lost their jobs when the evolving COVID-19 pandemic forced many categories of businesses to close indefinitely. In the months following, the CARES Act dramatically (though temporarily) expanded unemployment benefits, and additional legislation and executive action continues to bolster the efficacy of unemployment programs. At the same time, individual states have instituted some form of a gradual reopening plan, allowing some types of businesses to reopen. This means that many who initially lost employment are now being offered their jobs back.

However, there are several reasons an employee may not want to accept an offer to return to their former position. In some states, expanded unemployment compensation continues, creating a situation where you can receive more through benefits than you would through working. Continued economic hardship might also mean that you are being asked back at reduced hours or at a reduced salary. Perhaps most importantly, some individuals may be worried about their health and safety should they return to work as the pandemic continues to spread, especially if their workplace is a high-risk environment.

Generally, the rule of thumb is that you risk losing unemployment benefits if you reject a suitable offer of employment. The COVID-19 situation has changed that conventional wisdom in some scenarios. Below, we cover how the pandemic affects whether you can continue to receive unemployment benefits after rejecting a job offer.

Suitability of a Job Offer

You are not obligated to accept any given job offer for fear of losing unemployment benefits. The job offer must be considered “suitable,” even in non-pandemic times. You must generally report any offers of employment when certifying for benefits and explain why you rejected the opportunity.

Suitability of a job offer can depend on:

  • Prior training or experience
  • Prior salary or pay
  • The amount of time you have been unemployed
  • The location of the opportunity versus where you currently live
  • Risk to your health and safety in performing the job duties

That last factor is especially important as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Previously, if you were unemployed but offered your old job, you were in most circumstances obligated to take it or relinquish your benefits. After all, you would be familiar with the duties, and the pay would likely be comparable. Now, however, complications stemming from the pandemic can make returning to a prior employment situation more challenging. There are practical considerations in returning to work with so many other elements of society disrupted, and your workplace may threaten your health or safety.

You are also not obligated to accept a job that is not remotely comparable to your skillset and experience. If you were an advertising executive before the pandemic began, for example, but were offered a clerk position at a grocery store for significantly less pay, you would likely be able to reject the opportunity and continue to collect your benefits.

Valid Reasons to Object Returning to Work

Unfortunately, not all of the reasons we discuss below will apply to everyone. Pandemic conditions and government response remains fluid, and every individual situation is different. Still, there are several conceptually valid objections that could allow you to reject an offer to return to work (or a comparable employment opportunity) while retaining your unemployment compensation.

You can attempt to use any of the following arguments in rejecting an offer of employment while attempting to keep your unemployment benefits:

  • You are immunocompromised or are considered high-risk for COVID-19 complications. This argument can work if your job requires you to be in situations that expose you to large numbers of people outside your household. This can be common in service industry jobs or any position that requires you to interact with customers. This argument will likely not apply if your position can be done remotely or from home. A note from a healthcare professional can help solidify your position by validating you have reason to be worried about returning to work. Keep in mind that you must still be available and able to work to receive unemployment benefits, so you must consider opportunities that do not put you in a high-risk scenario.
  • You have children unable to access education. The CARES Act specifically provides protections for employees with children who are unable to access schooling due to COVID-related closures. The introduction of virtual schooling can complicate this argument, but if your job requires you to be out of the house (and therefore unable to supervise or enable your child’s education), you may have sufficient reason to reject a job offer.
  • Your employer is not following local reopening guidelines. Each state and sometimes individual cities and counties have enforceable rules for modified business operations. In order to open, businesses must comply with these guidelines, which can include safety regulations for both customers and employees. California’s current reopening guidelines can be viewed here. You may be able to reject an opportunity from an employer that is flagrantly and continuously violating guidelines, as you can reject jobs that create “unreasonable” risk of exposure. However, you will have to prove your employer is creating this unreasonable standard, and isolated mistakes (like not wearing masks in one instance) will likely be insufficient. You may not receive unemployment benefits while you argue your case.
  • You have, may have, or have been exposed to COVID-19. You will likely be able to turn down a job and retain unemployment benefits if you have tested positive for COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms, or have been exposed to someone who has been confirmed to have the virus. This is especially true if your job cannot be performed remotely and requires you to leave your household. You will likely be unable to continue using this argument once you cease exhibiting symptoms or test negative for COVID-19. A note from your healthcare provider ordering you to self-isolate can help in validating this approach.

It is also worth noting that several popular arguments will not help you keep your unemployment benefits should you reject a suitable job offer. For example, simply believing it is not safe to return to work is not a sufficient justification. You are allowed to reject an offer of employment, of course, but you will most likely also lose your unemployment benefits. Similarly, many service jobs may attempt to hire you back with reduced hours. While you will indeed be making less, you cannot reject a job offer because fewer hours are being offered. Finally, refusing work because you make more on unemployment will typically result in losing your benefits.

If you are struggling to keep unemployment benefits after justifiably rejecting a job offer, our employment attorneys at K2 Employment Law Group are ready to help. We offer California workers compassionate, individualized legal assistance in numerous areas of employment law. We are prepared to advocate on your behalf to make sure your health and safety are protected.

If you are struggling with unemployment benefits as a result of COVID-19, schedule a free consultation by calling (800) 590-7674 or contact us online.