CORONAVIRUS

Recalled Iowa workers skittish about safety could risk jobless aid

Unemployment benefits grow as state eases business closures

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Thursday at the state emergency operations center in Johnston. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

DES MOINES — Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is “bullying” Iowans whose workplaces were sidelined by the coronavirus in threatening to take away their jobless benefits if they do not now want to return to work in potentially unsafe conditions, the leader of a liberal-leaning think tank asserts.

Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project of Iowa City, took issue Thursday with a notice issued by Iowa Workforce Development officials indicating that Iowans who refuse to return to work because unemployment benefits are more lucrative soon may be notified they are ineligible for the assistance.

Owen said many workers who decline to return to work are doing so because they feel unsafe in jobs due to working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Rather than taking the high road to protect all Iowans put in jeopardy by the coronavirus pandemic that she herself advises Iowans to guard against,” Owen said in a statement, the governor “is misrepresenting workers’ legal protections during the health emergency she declared.”

At Reynolds’ Thursday COVID-19 press briefing, Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend reiterated that Iowans who have been temporarily let go because of the pandemic but refuse to return to work without good reason when recalled will lose eligibility for unemployment benefits except in certain circumstances.

Included in the exemptions are workers experiencing symptoms and test positive for COVID-19, who have a household member diagnosed with the virus and needs care or who have recovered from COVID-19 but are experiencing medical complications making them unable to perform essential job duties.

Laid-off workers who do not have necessary child care or do not have transportation to work due to COVID-19 reasons also fall under the exceptions, she said.

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Employees in any of those circumstances were encouraged to work with their employer in determining the best way to handle the situation to return to work.

“We do have a provision in our unemployment code that allows an individual to quit a job if they feel that their workplace is unsafe,” Townsend said. “However it takes more than a mere assertion by the employee to establish this to be true. If employer provides necessary steps, it may be difficult to establish a good faith basis to quit due to safety concerns.”

Refusing to return to work when recalled could be considered a “voluntary quit,” which would disqualify a claimant from benefits.

Starting Friday, more Iowans may be called back to work because Reynolds has eased restrictions on some businesses including restaurants and fitness clubs in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

If workers are recalled but feel it’s still too unsafe, they risk losing jobless aid that now is far more lucrative than in the past with the addition of a $600 a week federal stimulus.

According to Owen, the state’s administrative code governing eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits establishes “good cause” reasons for leaving employment that include unsafe, intolerable or detrimental working conditions that would jeopardize the worker’s safety, health or morals.

“Iowans do not need to be lawyers to understand those rules. The rules clearly protect workers who want to go back to work but will find themselves in a new, dangerous situation in the workplace — our new world with the deadly spread of COVID-19,” said Owen.

“Instead, the governor, in comments during televised news conferences that have brought fresh national attention to Iowa’s poor treatment of workers, stated that an employee declining an offer to return to work is a ‘voluntary quit’ that makes them ineligible for unemployment benefits. As noted in the conditions above, this is not necessarily true in the case of an employee facing unsafe working conditions,” he added.

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At the same time, Owen contended, Reynolds has repeatedly declined to take steps to enforce safety standards in businesses that she wants to reopen.

“The governor’s comments have the effect of bullying workers into work arrangements that they could never have expected,” Owen said.

Workers who feel they are being put in an unsafe situation by the COVID-19 pandemic should seek legal or other expert advice, he said, “and not cast aside the rights they have under Iowa law just because the governor goes to a microphone and says otherwise.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a statement Thursday said ensuring that individuals have safe workplaces will be critical as they transition from unemployment back into their jobs.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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