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Many businesses can reopen soon, but questions about unemployment collection loom

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Many businesses can reopen soon, but questions about unemployment collection loom

FILE PHOTO FROM MARCH: Shalom Oruma (l) a laid off employee of Lloyd’s Restaurant in Inman Park gets enough food for a day or two from Mel McMillian, general manager of Victory Sandwich Bar in Inman Park at the Victory restaurant groups location in Downtown Decatur. Owner Ian Jones said they are trying to feed as many now unemployed workers as they could with food from their various restaurants pantries. Photo by Dean Hesse
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Decatur, GA – Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement on Monday that many businesses, including restaurants and barbershops, could reopen starting April 24 raised a number of questions.

A big one hanging over workers’ heads is whether they can refuse to return to work due to safety concerns and still collect unemployment benefits?

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told WSB-TV that these employees could collect unemployment benefits, but the answer was not an iron-clad “yes.”

“Butler says the short answer is yes,” WSB-TV reported. “In a lot of cases, quitting can be covered under unemployment but you are going to have to show proof of the issue that you are having.”

The “show proof” part of that statement indicates employees will have to argue their case before they can collect benefits. The state on April 22 attempted to further explain what happens when an employee decides returning to work is putting their health at risk.

A press release from Gov. Kemp’s office says, “If a decision is made by an employee to separate from his/her place of employment, the employee has the right to file an individual claim where an eligibility determination will be made based on the facts presented in the case.”

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Butler indicated it’s a discussion the employee needs to have with their employer.

“If an employee is concerned about returning to work due to exposure to COVID-19, we are encouraging employees to communicate with their employers on plans to safely return to work,” Butler said in the press release. “We are all working together on getting Georgians back to work in a safe and stable environment.”

Butler said if employees return to work and it won’t affect their unemployment eligibility if their hours are reduced.

“Despite claims to the contrary, returning to work does not automatically eliminate an individual’s state unemployment eligibility,” Butler said in the press release. “In fact, we designed this provision to encourage employers to continue to file while returning employees to work to take advantage of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) benefits.”

The new rule says individuals can make up to $300 a week and still receive benefits.

“Any amount over $300 will be deducted from a claimant’s weekly benefit amount, a payment determination based on an employee’s past wages,” the press release from Gov. Kemp’s Office said. “As long as a claimant is awarded at least $1 in state benefits, he or she is eligible to receive Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), the additional $600 weekly payment.”

Many local businesses are opting to remain closed even though the governor’s order allows them to reopen.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett asked the Georgia Municipal Association whether the employees of these businesses are still eligible for unemployment.

“Several businesses in Decatur have already indicated they do not feel safe re-opening at this time and fall in the categories that the Governor announced could re-open,” she said in an email to the Municipal Association. “If they choose not to re-open due to health concerns for themselves and their customers, are they and their (former) employees still eligible for unemployment?”

Larry Hanson, Executive Director of the Municipal Association, indicated that they would still be eligible.

“The [Department of Labor] has confirmed that as long as a business remains closed, even if by choice, the employees can continue to draw unemployment,” Hanson replied. “Further, it’s possible they could continue to draw unemployment even if the business reopens because the wage amounts earned were adjusted up.”

So it’s clear what will happen to workers of businesses that remain closed and workers who return at reduced hours. But workers who decline to return over health concerns may have a fight on their hands.

WABE, which has a content partnership with Decaturish, looked into this question as well.

The Georgia DOL said people who are afraid of getting COVID-19 are encouraged “to work with their employers on plans to return to work,” WABE reported.

If they decide to quit the job on their own, they can file an individual claim for unemployment benefits.

However, in that case, eligibility for payments will be determined based on “the facts presented in the case.”

Georgia Department of Labor spokesperson Kersha Cartwright Cartwright said while fear of COVID-19 may not be a specific reason to qualify for unemployment benefits, there are many other reasons one might qualify in the coronavirus environment.

“Many situations could qualify,” she said.

WABE, Decaturish.com’s content partner, contributed reporting to this story. 

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