Iowans who refuse to return to work may lose unemployment benefits

    Senate Democrats say President Trump's order to keep meatpacking plants open is putting workers at risk. (Creative commons photo via Pxhere.com)

    Iowans who refuse to return to work when recalled by their employer after a layoff or furlough triggered by COVID-19 may not be entitled to unemployment benefits, state officials said Monday.

    The announcement by Iowa Workforce Development follows reports that Iowans working at meatpacking plants and grocery stores stores are refusing to report for work out of concern for their own safety.

    Benefits will typically be denied to Iowans who refuse work, according to IWD, unless one of the following criteria applies:

    • The worker has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing symptoms, or a member of the worker’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

    • The worker has recovered but medical complications make it impossible to perform essential job duties.

    • The worker is providing care for a household member diagnosed with COVID-19.

    • The worker lacks transportation to and from work or child care due to issues related to COVID-19.

    IWD says that a refusal to return to work for anything other than the above reasons will be considered a “voluntary quit” by the agency, which would disqualify an individual from receiving benefits, including the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit of $600 per week.

    The University of Iowa’s Student Legal Services website includes a section on COVID-19 and unemployment benefits. According to that site, if Iowans don’t want to return to work out of concern for their own safety, they should talk to their employers about other options such as telecommuting, sick leave, paid time off or disability. “If no other options are available, you will be eligible for unemployment insurance,” the site says.

    According to a news release from IWD, an employee who is recalled on a part-time basis might continue to be eligible for benefits depending on the amount of wages they earn. They should continue filing their weekly claims and report the gross wages they earn each week. The self-employed should continue to report their weekly gross income as part of their continuing claims as they return to work.

    “The additional unemployment benefits that are provided under the CARES Act are meant to be temporary in nature and bridge the gap between the outbreak and a return to normal,” said Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend. “For Iowans whose employment may be permanently affected by the outbreak, we have many training opportunities under Future Ready Iowa to help them obtain training and begin a new career in a high-demand, high-paying job.”

    Iowa Workforce Development is asking businesses to report employees who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs as soon as possible. The department reminds Iowans that while some workers may temporarily collect more in benefits than they earned in wages, the CARES Act outlines serious consequences for fraud, including fines, confinement and ineligibility for future unemployment benefits.

    Clark Kauffman
    Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.