New Department of Labor guidelines create options for retroactive pandemic unemployment benefits

October 10, 2023

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on pandemic unemployment assistance may alter the thought process for individuals considering returning to work after being laid off. This as COVID-19 concerns persist.It also could present workforce challenges for employers that are trying to bring employees back to work.The Department of Labor issued guidance on February 25, 2021 to expand the number of instances in which individuals may receive unemployment benefits under the pandemic unemployment assistance program (PUA), including COVID-19 safety concerns. President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Department of Labor to clarify unemployment benefits eligibility requirements related to COVID-19.Now, individuals who decline work due to concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace might be eligible for unemployment assistance. The guidance also creates an opportunity for people to receive unemployment benefits retroactively.“The guidance is very specific and applies only to PUA, not regular unemployment claims,” says Connor Cross, Director of Human Resources for Syndeo. “In addition, only laid off or furloughed employees who did not return to work after being called back are covered under this new guidance.”The guidance adds three more COVID-19 reasons a person may be eligible to receive PUA under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was enacted in March 2020.

  • Individuals who refuse to return to a work environment that they believe to be unsafe or decline an offer for new work that they believe to be unsafe.
  • Certain people who provide services to educational institutions or educational service agencies.
  • Individuals who have had their hours reduced or have been subject to a temporary or permanent layoff.

Retroactive provisions

The Department of Labor says the additional eligibility provisions are retroactive to the start of the PUA program except in instances where a person did not file an initial claim on or before December 27, 2020. PUA claims in those cases are limited to weeks of unemployment that started on or after December 6, 2020.Here’s an example of when someone could benefit from the new Department of Labor guidelines: A person was laid off in June of 2020 and started receiving regular unemployment compensation before being called back to work four months later. That individual decides to not return to work due to concerns the place of employment is not in compliance with a local mask mandate. That person would not be allowed to continue to receive regular unemployment compensation but is now eligible to apply for PUA under the revised guidelines.Additionally, someone who was laid off in 2020 and received regular unemployment compensation before being offered a new job now could decline that offer under the safe work environment provision and apply for PUA instead.For reference, the Society for Human Resource Management compiled an information guide using its internal resources and various media outlets.

Added clarity

Meanwhile, this guidance does bring added clarity for employers.“We have been anxiously awaiting this additional guidance since President Biden issued the executive order,” Cross says. “Many HR professionals feared it would provide eligibility for anyone resigning due to COVID concerns. This could potentially have a strong impact on recruiting and retention.”Cross says employers should review and formalize their return-to-work policies and procedures to ensure they have documentation in place should they need to contest an unemployment claim or claims.The Department of Labor says PUA should be used as a last resort when individuals are not eligible for regular unemployment compensation, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), or other extended benefits.“We are happy to finally have guidance from the DOL and are keeping a close eye on how and when Kansas and other states in which our clients operate will implement the new guidance,” Cross says. About us: As the Heartland’s leading employer services company, Syndeo partners with local business owners to help them minimize risk, improve efficiency and maximize profitability allowing them the freedom to focus on growth and fulfilling their mission. Syndeo fulfills its mission by taking on all of the HR responsibilities for our clients’ workforce, including employee relations, benefits, risk management and payroll. Winner of the 2020 Best of HR Services Award through ClearlyRated for providing superior client service. See our ClearlyRated profile here.

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