On January 22, President Biden signed Executive Order 14002, Economic Relief Related to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The EO does not explicitly call for unemployment insurance (UI) payments. Rather, the White House released a Fact Sheet which details Biden’s requests. Namely, the President has urged the Department of Labor to clarify situations in which a worker can refuse to return to work and continue to collect UI benefits.
Under current UI laws, claimants cannot collect UI if they refuse offers of suitable employment without good cause, do not fulfill work search requirements and are not able and available to work. In light of the Pandemic, states have been afforded the flexibility to waive work search and able and available to work requirements for UI claimants. Disqualifying a claimant from receiving UI benefits when that person refuses suitable work, however, remains a complex issue among states and the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL defers to states to define suitable work. Most states define suitable work in reference to pay, hours, industry, and distance from home. However, the majority of states go further by also considering the risk to the workers’ health and safety in determining suitable work.
In response to President Biden’s EO, DOL is likely to give states greater flexibility to define suitable work and permissible reasons for individuals to refuse work due to health concerns. It is possible that DOL’s language may mirror the qualifications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Specifically, one condition for being unable to work under PUA is if the individual cannot reach their place of work because they have been instructed by their health-care provider to self-quarantine. DOL guidance may also be reflective of what OSHA is proposing with regard to COVID safety protocols.
At this point, how the DOL actually responds to the EO is educated speculation. Once the facts are known, updates and explanations can be found here.