We had a good question from one of our listeners on the radio Tuesday morning. Can workers refuse to go back to work and still draw unemployment benefits? The answer: maybe.

Background: We were talking about a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and at least two other Senate Democrats that would pay Americans $2,000 a month. The caller said she heard about a restaurant in Montana that was ready to open back up for business, but the workers refused to show up for work since they could make more money drawing unemployment than actually working.

So, can a worker refuse to go back to work and still draw unemployment?

Technically, a worker is supposed to go back to work once their job is available again. This is from a notice sent out to employers by the Montana Department of Labor & Industry's (DLI) Unemployment Insurance Division:

Federal law requires those on a temporary layoff related to the COVID-19 pandemic, return to work when called back. Failure to do so when there is available work could be considered a"refusal of work" and potentially disqualify the claimant from receiving unemployment insurance benefits.

To report refusals of work to the MontanaUI Program, please call (406) 444-0399. You may also fax the refusal information to (406) 444-2699. Please provide as much detail as possible regarding the refusal of work, including: the date(s) they refused work, what type of work was offered, how the work was offered and by whom, and the reason given by the claimant for not accepting the work. It is imperative to provide this information to minimize and prevent UI fraud. 

 

But there is a catch, as CNBC reports:

If someone believes their employer isn’t putting in the effort to provide a safe working environment, “workers could argue that the conditions are no longer safe and try to refuse work in the first place instead of going in,” Evermore tells CNBC Make It.

The state DLI also addressed the question elsewhere on their Frequently Asked Questions page:

Q: I am re-opening my business and have asked employees to return to work. If an employer refuses to return is the employee still eligible for UI benefits?

A: Generally, no. Individuals receiving UI benefits, even those whose claims are COVID-19 related, must return to work when able to do so. The employer should document the work offered, including any changes regarding wages or hours of work, the date the offer was made, and the reason given for the refusal.

However, an employee may be able to show good cause for not returning to work, if the business is not complying with the Phase 1 Directive on Reopening and any local public health orders. Further, if an employer is unable to make reasonable accommodations for an employee who is a vulnerable individual pursuant to the Directive on Reopening, the employee may be eligible for continuing benefits under regular UI, PEUC or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.