Under normal circumstances, an unemployment recipient becomes disqualified from the unemployment program upon refusing an offer of suitable employment or an offer to return to their previous job.  In response to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, the State of California took the unprecedented step of shuttering the world’s fifth-largest economy to protect public health.  With millions out of work, enrollment in California’s unemployment insurance program swelled following Governor Gavin Newsom issuing a statewide stay-at-home order.  Now, California is gradually reopening the economy and has already started relaxing the statewide stay-at-home order.

However, employees returning to work do so under a continued threat of contracting the Coronavirus/COVID-19 virus.  Despite being recalled to work, numerous employees remain concerned about their health and safety.  Employees scared to return to work amid the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic have options. They may be able to refuse to return to work while retaining unemployment benefits.  Under new California Coronavirus/COVID-19 EDD guidelines, Californians who refuse work due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic may remain eligible for unemployment.

Reopening California During the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic

As of March 19, 2020, Californians have been complying with a statewide stay-at-home order.  As experts begin understanding the Coronavirus/COVID-19 threat, and public awareness regarding social distancing during a pandemic increases, the state has gradually moved towards limited reopening. Starting in May 2020, lower-risk workplaces are permitted to reopen so long as they comply with Reopening Requirements and government safety regulations.

Under the gradual reopening, retail businesses can reopen for curbside pickup only.  Child care, manufacturing, and logistics worksites are also permitted to reopen.  California has issued several industry-specific guidance for businesses that contain regulations and rules designed to reduce the risk of Coronavirus/COVID-19 and create a safe environment for employees.

Keeping California Unemployment After Refusing Employment During the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic

California unemployment recipients must re-certify for unemployment benefits every two weeks.  When re-certifying, after refusing to return to work due to Coronavirus/COVID-19 related fears, the recipient must state that they refused work.  However, this does not mean that the recipient will automatically become ineligible for unemployment benefits.  EDD will contact the recipient to determine if the individual had good cause for refusing work.  The following reasons may be good cause for refusing to work during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

1. The Business Does Not Provide an Essential Service and is Not An Industry Designated for Reopening by the State

An unemployment recipient has good cause to refuse to return to work where they are requested to return to work at a business that does not provide an essential service.  This is because California’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 stay-at-home order is still in effect and applies to non-essential businesses and industries that have not yet reopened.  Although the definition of essential service is not always clear, employees can refer to the California Resilience Roadmap for guidance.

2. The Business Isn’t Complying with California Reopening Requirements & Government Safety Regulations

As stated above, California is beginning a gradual reopening of the economy.  Limited businesses and industries may reopen, provided they comply with California’s reopening requirements and other government safety regulations.  Where a business orders employees back to work, but is not complying with California’s reopening requirements and other government safety regulations, the employee has good cause to refuse employment and retain their unemployment benefits.

3. The Employee is a Member of a Vulnerable Population With An Elevated Risk of Contracting Coronavirus/COVID-19

Even where the employer is an essential business and complies with reopening requirements, an employee who is a member of a vulnerable population that is at heightened risk for severe illness has good cause for refusing work and continuing to collect unemployment benefits.  These include people older than sixty-five years old, individuals with weakened immune systems, or serious chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease.  For more information, please refer to the California Department of Public Health’s March 2020 guidance.

However, an employer offering telework may obviate the unemployment recipient’s good cause to deny employment.  Prior to refusing work, an individual with an elevated risk of contracting Coronavirus/COVID-19 should discuss potential telework or work from home options with their employer. If an accommodation is not possible, it is more likely that EDD will determine that the individual had good cause to refuse employment, and still qualifies for unemployment.

4. The Employee Cannot Return to Work Since Their Child’s School Shut Down Due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19

In April 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered California schools closed in response to the growing public health threat posed by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.  With summer school programs largely canceled, and an expectation that most schools will remain closed until the fall, thousands of families have unanticipated childcare obligations.  An employee who remains at home to care for their child, whose school remains closed due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, likely has good cause for refusing employment.  EDD determines these cases on a case-by-case basis.

No Good Cause for Refusing Employment Because Wage is Less Than Unemployment Benefit

The CARES Act established the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides an additional $600 per week to California unemployment recipients until July 25, 2020.  Some employees may receive a total unemployment benefit greater than their weekly wage.  Although the Unemployment Insurance Code permits unemployment recipients to decline employment where the employer does not offer a prevailing wage, a recipient does not have good cause for refusing work where the wage is less than their unemployment benefit.