As Virginia reopens, those refusing to return to work could lose unemployment benefits

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is preparing to start the reopening process as early as Friday and those who refuse to return to work could be at risk of losing their unemployment benefits, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

William Walton, the VEC’s director of unemployment insurance, said the commission is starting to hear more cases like this as the country begins easing coronavirus restrictions.

MORE: Phase One of Virginia’s reopening plan allows salons, outdoor dining to open with limited capacity

“Simply being afraid of getting sick is not going to be sufficient to decline that job and maintain eligibility for benefits,” Walton said.

Walton said the employment commission will take additional circumstances into consideration during the adjudication process, such as underlying conditions, a sick relative or childcare restrictions. He said the VEC will decide if the offer of employment is “suitable” based on these reasons.

Capital Ale House President Matthew Simmons speaking with Capitol Bureau Reporter Jackie DeFusco.

Capital Ale House President Matthew Simmons said he has recently been able to hire back most of his 300 employees to help with takeout and delivery services. If Gov. Ralph Northam sticks to a May 15 start date for ‘Phase One,’ he said they’ll also be opening up their patios at 50 percent occupancy.

As the company turns the corner, Simmons said some of his employees aren’t ready to return to work. “They are afraid for their own safety or they may be living with somebody that they don’t want to take a chance on infecting,” Simmons said.

In the early stages of reopening, Simmons said he’s willing to give employees some leeway. “It’s the right thing to do. We want all of our employees to come back but we want it to be on terms that are beneficial for all of us,” he said.

Walton said each claim will be decided on a case-by-case basis by VEC. This comes as staff are being bombarded by historic unemployment claims, now topping 600,000 statewide, according to Walton.

Asked if the agency can realistically process cases quickly, Walton said they’re ramping up staff but people should expect delays.

“Everything because of the volume has the potential to take longer,” Walton said.

He said the process could take more than 30 days. That’s about double what it would take during normal times, according to Walton.

Throughout the adjudication process, Walton said people are not compensated. “They may be actively submitting weeks for payment but until we can deem that they are qualified as a result of that separation those payments are not released,” Walton said.

That’s why it’s important to keep claim files active, according to Walton. That way, if you’re approved by the employment commission, you’ll be compensated for all of the weeks that were missed.

In a press conference on Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer acknowledged that workers are in a difficult position.

“Obviously it’s a tenuous situation with folks now being offered their positions back and I think many workers have very valid concerns,” Mercer said. “I think there will be tension with the Trump administration over how this is handled nationally.”

Mercer said the federal government has asked states to provide lists of employees who refused to return to work.

“We have a state process to handle claims and complaints and I think it would be our preference to handle that at the state level,” Mercer said.

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