When the governor of New Jersey closed down all but essential businesses throughout the state, it left little doubt as to the rights and responsibilities of business owners and workers alike. But with the curve beginning to flatten and a slow reopening occurring, things become less clear. What happens to workers who are called back to work but are either unable or unwilling to comply?

There are many reasons for employees to be concerned about a return to work. Nearly all Americans are concerned about the risks of the virus and exposure, but those who are personally immunocompromised or who share their homes with those who are particularly vulnerable have more to fear than others. Likewise, parents of children whose schools, camps or daycares have not reopened may find themselves facing additional burdens and concerns that make returning to work untenable.

If you find yourself in one of these categories, you may choose not to return to work. Here is what you need to know about your legal rights and responsibilities regarding unemployment benefits, and the actions that you may need to take.

Unemployment eligibility – Unemployment benefits have never been available for people who walk away from their jobs, but some of the rules surrounding quitting have changed under the current situation. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program that allows some workers to apply for unemployment benefits, but eligibility for those benefits will depend upon the answers you submit on your application.

The pertinent questions on the application involve your answers regarding availability to work and ability to work. All questions should be answered honestly, and under the current emergent circumstances the answers will be interpreted differently. For example, if your job loss is related to having been sick with COVID-19 yourself, to needing to care for a family or household member who was sick with COVID-19, or some other scenario that resulted from the COVID-19 crisis, that may lead to eligibility for unemployment benefits. Another question you will be asked will be whether or not you are actively looking for a job, and the answer to that question might be yes even if rather than actually applying for a position with another company you are waiting to be contacted by your employer to come back, or waiting until the crisis has passed.

Another question that the unemployment insurance benefits questionnaire includes refers to turning down an offer of work. Where that would previously have included your eligibility for benefits, if you chose not to accept a position like that due to one of the reasons listed above specific to the pandemic would make the answer to that question no.

Unfortunately, the fact that the current situation might make you eligible for unemployment benefits, there is no guarantee that will be the case but it is certainly more likely for your application to be considered, especially in light of specific language contained within the CARES Act that makes workers eligible for benefits if the reason that they leave their job is directly related to the virus. Each case will likely be judged on its own merits, and much of the determination will also rest on the degree of pushback that your employer puts forth. If an employee requests accommodations or safety measures be taken and the employer does not cooperate, the employee should make sure to document their efforts. Similarly, those who choose not to return to work as a result of the need to care for themselves or a family or household member who is sickened by the virus, or because they need to be there for a child left unsupervised by the current circumstances, that will need to be documented.

One way or another, keep in mind that the additional $600 unemployment benefit being provided in connection with COVID-19 is a temporary benefit that expires at the end of July. Though there is a chance that it will be expanded, that can by no means be counted on, and the benefit will quickly return to its previous levels.

If you have been denied unemployment benefits in the state of New Jersey, we can help. Contact us today to speak with one of our attorneys about your situation.