Posted June 10, 202012:11 pm
Ohio’s economic reopening is underway under the “Responsible RestartOhio” plan. However, the reality is that even the most comprehensive safety guidelines will result in employees being called back to work in environments that place them at higher risk of coronavirus exposure. Until there is comprehensive testing and/or a vaccine, continued spread of the virus is inevitable.
Most professionals in higher-earning sectors have the privilege of continuing remote work, and many offices have opted to continue to work remotely to minimize risk to their employees. For most low-wage workers – including janitors, servers, and cashiers – remote work is not an option; they will have to return to public workplaces prone to community spread, regardless of their concerns.
Ohio’s economy is only as healthy as its most vulnerable workers. As calls have intensified for a return to “normalcy” and a faster reopening – largely led by business leaders – Ohio’s workers will be faced with an impossible choice: return to a workplace they may feel is unsafe, or risk losing their employment and income.
A popular myth is that a worker can voluntarily quit their job and be eligible for unemployment benefits. This is far from the truth. Unemployment compensation is only available to workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Very rarely is someone who quit a job considered “not at fault” for that job loss. Further, neither federal programs nor Ohio’s expanded unemployment compensation eligibility standards allow workers to refuse to return to work and continue to receive unemployment benefits if they feel their workplace is unsafe.
Working Ohioans deserve the same level of consideration and concern as business owners and should be able to refuse to return to work or voluntarily leave their employment due to reasonable coronavirus-related issues without risking denial of unemployment benefits or being accused of fraud by their employer.
To make matters worse, many workers still have not received the unemployment compensation benefits to which they are entitled because the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) continues to be overwhelmed with unemployment applications. Ohio workers had to wait months to apply for the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
While Ohio’s workers have struggled to hold on as they wait for the payments they need to afford rent and other essentials, ODJFS established a website encouraging employers to report workers for fraud if they refuse to return to work. While public outcry has since made the state reconsider operating the site, the fact that the state devoted resources to the creation of a fraud-reporting site while workers have gone months without their owed payments is outrageous.
Policy organizations like Policy Matters Ohio and the Ohio Poverty Law Center have provided several valuable recommendations for supporting unemployed and vulnerable workers during the ongoing crisis:
1. Providing return-to work exemptions for workers particularly vulnerable to the virus; workers who are being asked to return to workplaces that are not meeting safety standards; and workers without access to child care.
2. Providing expanded, concrete guidance on “just cause” determinations for quitting work as a result of the deadly pandemic. Similar policies have been enacted in other states, and these recommendations would provide vital protections.
Ohio businesses have undeniably suffered as a result of the economic shutdown. But any economic pain must be weighed against the potential health risk and harm reopening the economy may cause to the Ohioans who have no choice but to return to work and expose themselves to the virus. We must value the economic and physical health of every Ohioan equally and provide them the proper protections and support to see them through the pandemic.