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Refusal to work could jeopardize unemployment benefits

By Jill Penley

New unemployment claims are finally beginning to decrease and have now dropped to their lowest level in Tennessee since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in mid-March. Nearly 36.5 million Americans have found themselves temporarily or permanently out of a job since the week of March 16, which translates to a staggering 15.7 percent unemployment. Though the reopening of states will allow some people to go back to work, businesses will open in stages rather than all at once, and many may not have the resources to hire as many people as they did previously.

Federal guidelines the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development follows to administer the Tennessee Unemployment Compensation (TUC) program state an individual must be willing and able to work to receive state unemployment benefits. Not returning to work when there is available employment may be considered a “refusal of work” and could potentially disqualify claimants from receiving TUC benefits.

The federal CARES Act provides provisions for individuals who have traditionally been ineligible for state unemployment benefits, but those provisions do not apply to employees apprehensive about returning to work because of health concerns.
Under federal law, workers who have been placed on a temporary layoff related to COVID-19 who can work, and do not qualify for any other Unemployment Insurance provisions through the state or under the CARES Act, must return to work if called back.

The following are the COVID-19 eligibility requirements to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provided through the federal CARES Act.
•Are diagnosed with COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking diagnosis;

•Have a member of the household who is diagnosed with COVID-19;

•Are providing care for a family or household member diagnosed with COVID-19;

•Are the primary caregiver for a child whose school or care facility closed, due to COVID-19;

•Are unable to reach their place of employment due to an imposed quarantine, or because advised by a medical provider to self-quarantine, due to COVID-19;

•Were scheduled to start new employment and cannot reach the workplace as a direct result of COVID-19;

•Became the major breadwinner because the head of household died from COVID-19;

•Quit their job as a direct result of COVID-19;

•Had their place of employment closed as a direct result of COVID-19; or

•Meet any additional criteria specified by U.S. Secretary of Labor.

It is also important to know unemployment payments are reported as income to the Internal Revenue Service as benefits are taxable and reportable.

Even in the midst of a pandemic and as many struggle financially, between state and additional benefits offered through the CARES Act, people can now get $875 a week, but only a flat rate of 10 percent can be withheld from those benefits. Depending on one’s taxable income, tax preparers say that may not be enough. Employees and employers can find answers to commonly asked questions about returning to work on the Department’s website,

Employers will also find a “Refusal to Work Form” on the website. They can use this form to notify the Department of an employee’s refusal to return the work. The Department will investigate the claim to determine if the employee is no longer eligible for unemployment benefits because they are able and available to earn income.