Stephanie Ferguson Stephanie Ferguson
Director, Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


March 02, 2021


The Department of Labor has released guidance detailing qualifying reasons for an individual to refuse work and still be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The Department was instructed to develop this guidance through a fact sheet that accompanied Executive Order 14002.

The guidance establishes three new reasons an individual may self-certify as eligible for PUA. One of these states that an individual may refuse suitable work if working conditions are unsafe. To take advantage of this provision, an individual must have applied for regular UI and been found ineligible due to that refusal. For purposes of this exemption, unsafe work is defined as a worksite that is not adhering to national, state, or local COVID-19 safety standards. Such standards may include enforcing the wearing of face masks or social distancing. The claim of an unsafe workplace must be made under penalty of perjury.

In addition to this new provision, the program letter expands PUA eligibility to “certain individuals who provide services to educational institutions” and individuals whose hours have been reduced, were temporarily laid off, or permanently laid off. These three criteria were not included in the CARES Act, under which the PUA program was originally established.

This guidance—the first released by the Employment and Training Agency since the change of Administrations—walks the line between clarifying rights and obligations under PUA and legislating via interpretive guidance. And while no one wants workers to have to enter unsafe workplaces, it’s not hard to see that there is the potential for fraud here since PUA is completely self-certified. In any workplace, there will be situations where full social distancing isn’t possible. Does that constitute an unsafe workplace? What if some employees are unmasked during part of the workday (even if a business has a policy requiring masks)? How will already overburdened state UI offices verify any claims of an unsafe workplace? These scenarios could create chaos in the already overwhelmed PUA system and within businesses seeking to hire new workers.

Time will tell how DOL’s new guidance works in practice. The best scenario would be for vaccine rollouts to accelerate so that it is no longer needed.

About the authors

Stephanie Ferguson

Stephanie Ferguson

Stephanie Ferguson is the Director of Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives. Her work on the labor shortage has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Associated Press.

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