What’s ‘good cause’ when it comes to pandemic?

State guidelines are vague, but Department of Labor says flexibility has been encouraged

The Alaska Department of Labor Building in Juneau. DOLWD said what constituted “good cause” for workers remaining home for health concerns would be taken on a case by case basis. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

The Alaska Department of Labor Building in Juneau. DOLWD said what constituted “good cause” for workers remaining home for health concerns would be taken on a case by case basis. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Workers who want to retain their unemployment insurance benefits may have to return to work, according to Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter, unless they can provide good cause as to why they’re unable.

However DOLWD was unable to clarify precisely what constituted “good cause” to remain absent from work.

“Determinations are done on a case by case basis,” DOLWD Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz said in an email. “The Commissioner has encouraged flexibility in determining good cause given the COVID-19 situation. Health and safety will be considered.”

In an opinion piece for the Empire, Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commission Tamika Ledbetter urged Alaska’s small business owners and independent contractors to take advantage of the numerous programs the state is offering to help stabilize the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter also said certain employees may have to return to work if they wanted to remain eligible for unemployment insurance, or UI.

“In the absence of good cause, employees refusing to go back to work will be ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” Ledbetter wrote in the piece.

This was being done in response to numerous inquiries from employers, “concerned about getting employees back to work given the financial resources of the combined federal/state program,” Ledbetter wrote.

Many businesses remain closed, and according to Juneau Economic Development Council Executive Director Brian Holst, no Juneau business owners have reported having that problem.

“That’s not what we’ve been hearing,” Holst said adding that most business owners he’s spoken to have mostly mentioned seeking financial assistance.

“Federal law requires that recipients of UI be available for full-time work. When an employer calls an employee back to work, and the employee refuses, in the absence of good cause, the individual will no longer be eligible for UI benefits,” Muñoz wrote.

Employers were encouraged to report potential violators to the state’s UI fraud-detection unit. Penalties for UI fraud include 50% of the benefits paid during the period in question, plus a denial of benefits of between six to 52 weeks in future benefit eligibility depending on the severity of the fraudulent activity, according to Muñoz.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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