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May 26, 2020

Unemployment Benefits and Workplace Safety in the Time of Coronavirus

For over thirty years West Virginia law has provided unemployment compensation benefits to people unemployed because they had a reasonable and good faith belief that performing the work would jeopardize health and safety. 

Now, in the time of coronavirus, that protection is going to be even more important as businesses begin to reopen. Some employers may take every practical step possible to protect employees, but some may not. 

In West Virginia you do not need to choose between “your money” (unemployment compensation payments) or “your life” (being forced to go work in an unsafe workplace with an unsafe risk of COVID-19). 

The protection for West Virginia workers was stated in a 1987 case from the West Virginia Supreme Court. In that case a loading dock worker was fired for refusing a work assignment he thought was dangerous to himself and to the public. The West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously held that a person should not be disqualified from unemployment –

 “because he or she reasonably and in good faith believes that performance of the job assignment would jeopardize the claimant’s own   health and safety or the health and safety of others.”

This rule to protect worker safety will apply to the decisions people have to make every day about going back to work while coronavirus is still circulating and infecting people. 

Suppose you’re being called back to work at a telephone call center that’s re-opening. When you worked there before, everyone was packed into little cubicles. There were 4 or 5 people who sat within six feet of your chair. That’s not appropriate “social distancing.” Ask the company how the workplace is being re-arranged. What’s being done to protect employees from infection? 

Look at the Governor’s guidelines for re-opening West Virginia businesses. This guidance covers lots of businesses, from restaurants to small shops to hair and nail salons and more. 

Also, look at the CDC has guidelines, including a “Workplace Decision Tool.”

Find out from the company what health and safety steps are being taken. If the company doesn’t match the recommendations from CDC and the State of West Virginia, think twice. Factor in your own health status, and whether you have conditions that make you a “high risk of severe outcome” person. See the CDC listing of high risk factors.

In the end, understand that West Virginia law DOES PROTECT people with a “reasonable and good faith belief” that doing a job would jeopardize health and safety. You should not lose your unemployment benefits because you were unwilling to perform work that would put you or others in jeopardy. 

Legal Aid has a much more detailed set of Frequently Asked Questions on this topic. Click here to see the FAQ.