Some laid-off Colorado workers refusing employers' back-to-work calls

Unemployment assistance exceeds wages for many workers


As limits on business operations triggered by the coronavirus pandemic are slowly being relaxed across Colorado, some employers are asking their laid-off workers to come back to work — but not all of those idled workers are agreeing to return.

And in some cases, state officials are allowing workers who refuse to go back to their jobs to continue to collect unemployment benefits.

In Colorado, employers have reported 250 job refusals in the first couple weeks since late April, around the time the statewide stay-at-home order ended, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Two of those were refusals of work from somewhere other than the person's most recent work situation, but the rest were offers to return to the most recent employer.

Ninety-eight of those refusals had been processed as of May 7, with 93 of those state decisions determining the workers are still eligible for benefits, according to the department.

Workers can't choose to stay on unemployment simply because they're taking in more money that way, said Cher Roybal Haavind, the labor department's deputy executive director. That's important because, in light of the new federal program that gives an extra $600 per week on top of a state's regular unemployment assistance, the possibility of people making more on unemployment than they would while working has become a hot topic.

On average, Colorado workers eligible for unemployment benefits are receiving nearly as much in benefits now — with the $600 boost included — as they were paid on the job as of late 2019, the New York Times has reported. That means that a large percentage of Colorado laid-off workers are paid more in benefits than they were in wages.

Under state rules, those workers who receive benefits are required to make biweekly reports to the labor department, and those updates must say if a person refused a job offer. From there, the department evaluates whether that person is still eligible for benefits.

Failing to report job refusals when requesting benefit payment can be considered a fraudulent act under Colorado law, said Philip Spesshardt, a manager at the state labor department. That rule applies for any job offer, not just an offer to return to a previous position.

Some reasons a person could turn down a job offer and still collect unemployment benefits, according to Haavind, include:

• The work environment is not complying with social distancing or the guidelines of Colorado's recent safer-at-home order.

• The person is part of a group that is more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others.

• The person has COVID-19 or is caring for someone with the disease.

• Work offered involves an “unreasonable” reduction in the rate of pay.

• Work offered is substantially different and less favorable to the employee than their prior experience with the employer.

The department is asking employers who make a return-to-work offer, or any job offer, that is not accepted to report it on the website.

After either an unemployed Coloradan or an employer reports that a job offer has been turned down, the department suspends the Coloradan's benefits while it contacts both parties about the job offered and the reason for the refusal before issuing a decision.

The process typically takes between two and five business days, depending upon the responsiveness of both parties, Spesshardt said. Any decision can be appealed by either party, according to Haavind.

Gig, self-employed, contract workers

For gig workers — such as Lyft drivers — and self-employed and contract workers, their unemployment benefits come through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, a new stream of money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In April, the state announced that people who have lost gig work and similar previously ineligible positions would be able to apply for benefits.

Federal guidelines for returning to work for those groups are not explicit, Haavind said.

The state doesn't judge when workers should return to work based on market demand in their field.

Such labor market information does not determine whether individuals on regular state unemployment should continue to be eligible for benefits, so any labor market information related to gig workers and the self-employed also would not determine eligibility on pandemic unemployment assistance, Spesshardt said.

“The information would more commonly be used to determine whether an individual is performing an active and reasonable search for work when required,” Spesshardt added.

Record-breaking numbers

During the fallout from the Great Recession, the week with the highest number of claims for unemployment assistance filed in Colorado was the week ending Jan. 9, 2010, with 7,749 claims.

This year, the week ending March 21 — when Colorado closed dine-in restaurant and bar service, and hair and nail salons, spas, and tattoo and massage parlors — shattered that record with 19,745 new unemployment claims filed.

Then, the next three weeks saw the numbers increase fivefold. And although the numbers have dropped off from that high point, Colorado continues to see historic numbers of claims each week.

In the week ending April 11, the department counted 104,217 initial claims filed.

There were 67,334 initial unemployment claims filed the week ending April 18, more than 79,000 initial claims filed the week ending April 25 and more than 41,000 filed the week ending May 2, according to state Labor Department news releases.

For those last two weeks, the total includes both regular unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance for those such as gig workers and the self-employed.

The week ending April 25, there were 40,906 pandemic unemployment assistance claims. There were 13,149 of those claims filed the week ending May 2.


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