The phased reopening of Colorado’s economy amid the coronavirus pandemic means detective work for the people who oversee the state’s unemployment benefits program.
So far state labor officials have opened investigations into 150 instances of workers being called back to their workplaces or being offered new jobs and refusing, choosing instead to continue requesting unemployment benefits, Jeff Fitzgerald, the state unemployment insurance director, estimated Thursday.
In 50 of those cases, the state allowed the workers to stay on unemployment. Five workers have been told they no longer qualify for benefits.
The rest of the cases are still open, Fitzgerald said before a weekend when hundreds of businesses in the Denver area will be allowed to reopen, potentially calling tens of thousands of people currently collecting unemployment back to work.
Officials did not provide specific details for any of the cases, but the state is allowing people to turn down work during the pandemic in certain situations.
Fitzgerald did not have industry-specific information about where the disputes were coming from.
There are two main channels for the disputes to head to the labor department. One is via the information that workers who are collecting unemployment benefits are required to file with the labor department on a weekly or biweekly basis. That filing portal includes reminders that falsified information is considered fraud.
“In addition to reporting if they received any earnings over those weeks, they would also have to report if they were offered a return to work or a job offer, and what that will do is that will prompt a temporary hold on the benefits while we analyze the situation and determine should those benefits continue or should the benefits be taken away due to the appropriateness of the return-to-work” offer, Fitzgerald said.
The state also has a form on its employer resources page through which employers can report if someone refused an offer of suitable work. So far, that form has generated about 200 responses, officials say.
Unlike some other states, Colorado’s labor office does not have an Occupational Safety and Health Administration function that allows it to investigate workplace safety, said Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy executive director. In Colorado, that work is done by OSHA and state and local health authorities.
Instead, the department gathers facts from both the employers and the employee and makes a determination based on that. Its rulings can be appealed, Fitzgerald noted.
At the direction of Gov. Jared Polis, the labor department drafted an emergency rule last week allowing people to decline job offers and stay on unemployment in certain circumstances. Fitzgerald said the circumstances his division will consider include:
- If the workplace is blatantly not complying with health standards around the coronavirus
- If the employee is a part of a group that is vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, like people over 65 or those with preexisting health conditions
- If the worker has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or is taking care of someone in their household who has it
- If the work that was turned down did not fit with the person’s previous employment, i.e. dock work for a laid off accountant
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