Finance

Labor expands jobless aid for workers who reject employers skirting COVID-19 rules

The Labor Department on Thursday expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to those who refused to return to work or declined a job offer because the worksite was not following coronavirus safety protocols.

Under the new guidance, jobless individuals can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) if they turn down an offer from a business "not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19." Those protocols include wearing face masks, maintaining social distance and providing personal protective equipment.

PUA was created by the CARES Act in March to expand jobless aid to gig workers, contractors and others who do not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance.

The persistence of the pandemic has forced many Americans to make tough choices about whether to return to work and risk contracting COVID-19 or take the financial hit to protect their health. The Labor Department's expansion of PUA is meant to take that decision off the table.

"It's great news that these workers are not going to be forced to choose between their health - and the health of their family members - and their ability to pay rent and buy groceries," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in a statement.

The department also expanded PUA eligibility to workers who provide services to schools and educational facilities but have suffered significant losses in work, and those who've been either permanently or temporarily laid off and do not qualify for other jobless benefit programs.

Roughly 7.5 million Americans were receiving PUA benefits as of Feb. 7. The program is set to expire next month, but President Biden has proposed extending PUA in his $1.9 trillion pandemic response and economic relief plan.

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