How an Employee’s Refusal to Return to Work Affects Their Unemployment Compensation Benefits

  • Jun 8, 2020
  • COVID-19
  • Colin H. Hargreaves

Although Minnesota continues to reopen, some employees remain steadfast in their desire not to return to work. Each such refusal may impact that employee’s continuing claim to unemployment compensation benefits, as discussed below.

While stated in many different ways, their four primary pandemic-related reasons for refusing to return are:

  • The employee refuses to return due to unsafe work conditions at their place of employment.
  • The employee generally fears returning due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The employee refuses because they believe that the job is not “suitable employment.”
  • The employee is receiving benefits due to the CARES Act, which allows them to temporarily receive more than what they may have made while at work.

Unsafe Work Conditions

An employee may refuse to return work because they reasonably believe unsafe work conditions exist at their place of employment. To be able to continue receiving benefits, the employee must show that the conditions present an imminent danger of death or serious physical harm that would lead an average worker to quit. Depending on the factual circumstances, COVID-19 may be an imminent danger of death or serious physical harm. In such cases, the employer should request specific information about the employee’s particular concerns and seek to allay those concerns by providing clear information about the proactive measures the employer has taken to address the safety issue(s).

Generalized Fears of Returning

If the employee does not have any medical conditions, or reasons to believe that the workplace is unsafe, a generalized fear of returning is not sufficient to remain eligible for unemployment benefits. If this occurs, again it is advisable to communicate with your employee to hear their concerns, offer reassurance that you are following all available public health guidance, outline the specific measures that have been taken, and discuss the implications of them not returning to work. If the employee still refuses, they likely will not qualify for continuing unemployment benefits because you have offered suitable employment.

Suitable Employment

In some cases, an employer offers the employee a different position upon recalling them back to work. This could be a result of the company restructuring or the employer eliminating certain positions due to the economy. Determining whether the individual is eligible for unemployment requires analyzing whether the position offered is “suitable employment.” This means that the employment offered is reasonably related to the individual’s qualifications. Other factors in this equation include the degree of risk involved to health and safety, the employee’s physical fitness for the position, prior training, experience, length of unemployment, prospects for securing employment in the individual’s occupation, and whether the job requires a significantly longer commute.

In addition, consideration must be given to the offered wages since employment may not be suitable due to lower wages. If the job is not suitable, the individual may remain eligible for unemployment.

Receiving Enhanced Unemployment Benefits

An employee who refuses to return to work due to receiving heightened unemployment benefits because of the CARES Act, is also not eligible to receive unemployment benefits once you offer suitable reemployment. In this situation, we suggest sending a written recall notice and speaking with the employee about the implications of refusing to return to work.

How to Report Unemployment Eligibility Information

The first thing you must do in regard to addressing these scenarios is report any newly hired, re-hired and returning to work employee to the Department of Employment and Economic Development at their “New Hire Reporting Center” online portal within 20 days. Next, you can “raise an issue” with the Minnesota Unemployment Insurance office to dispute an applicant’s eligibility for unemployment benefits.

To raise an issue, you must log into your employer account online, click “Determinations and Issue Summary,” select the corresponding employee you are raising an issue about, and then follow the prompts. You can also raise an issue by fax or mail by sending the first page of the employee’s unemployment determination letter with annotations indicating that you are raising and issue and the reasoning behind it. After raising an issue, make sure to gather all relevant information and documentation, including the employee’s personnel file, timecards, any evidence of the employee refusing to return, the written recall notice, and anything similar. The unemployment office will contact you for such information to make an eligibility determination.

DEED offers detailed information online on how to do this.

Bottom Line

The pandemic has greatly changed the landscape for unemployment compensation benefits. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations when an employee refuses to return to work because of concerns over COVID-19.