As business in Iowa begins to reopen, employers are preparing to recall employees who were laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, in light of the increased availability of unemployment benefits and lingering employee concerns about COVID-19, some employers have grown worried that employees will be reluctant to return to work. Can these employees voluntarily decline to return to work and still continue to collect unemployment benefits?
On April 27, 2020, Iowa Workforce Development issued guidance clarifying that employees laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic who refuse to return to work when recalled by their employer will be deemed to have voluntarily quit their employment, losing their state and federal unemployment benefits. However, benefits will not be lost where the employee fails to return to work due to one of the following circumstances:
- The employee has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing symptoms;
- The employee has recovered from COVID-19 but cannot perform essential job duties due to medical complications caused by the disease;
- A member of the employee’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
- The employee is providing care for a member of their household who was diagnosed with COVID-19;
- The employee does not have childcare due to COVID-19 reasons; or
- The employee does not have transportation to the workplace because of COVID-19.
These six exceptions expand benefit protection only to situations where the employee’s inability to return to work is caused by COVID-19. Iowa Workforce Development regulations generally provide that quitting due to a non-work-related illness, family responsibilities, a lack of childcare, or a lack of transportation will disqualify the employee from eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Employers should follow CDC, OSHA, and IDPH guidance on protecting employees in the workplace and provide their employees returning to work with specific information about implemented safety protections. Employees cannot be punished for voicing health and safety concerns, but those concerns should be managed in an objective and data-driven manner. Nonetheless, some employees who do not meet the above criteria may still be generally fearful about returning to work. Absent a valid health and safety concern, an employee who refuses to return to work will likely be disqualified from receiving benefits, but this will be a fact-specific analysis. You should consult your attorneys if this issue arises.
Iowa Workforce Development asks that businesses report employees who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs through the IWD website.
- Amy Reasner and Nathan Kooker