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State Tells Iowans To Return To Work Or Lose Benefits, But Unsafe Workplace Could Be An Exception

Workers at Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa, take the first bets at the casino's new sportsbook.
Grant Gerlock
IPR file
Workers at Prairie Meadows in Altoona take the first bets at the casino's sportsbook in 2019.

Iowa Workforce Development notified Iowans last week that refusing to return to work for fear of getting coronavirus will disqualify them for unemployment payments, but that’s not always the case.

Iowa Legal Aid Litigation Director Alex Kornya said state law is more nuanced than IWD’s statement would lead Iowans to believe.

“I think it’s a more correct statement of the law to say it is always a roll of the dice if you are considering quitting because your employer is not following safe work practices,” Kornya said.

There is an exception for unsafe working conditions. He said it could be possible for someone to get unemployment benefits if their employer isn’t doing anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Kornya gave the example of a case involving a telemarketer.

“They were being told they had to come into work elbow-to-elbow with other telemarketers in a windowless room, with no PPE, no cleaning supplies provided, no precautions whatsoever, no social distancing,” Kornya said. “And it was telemarketing, which is not something you actually have to be physically present, crammed into a room, to do. That, in my opinion, is someone who would have good cause to receive unemployment.”

But if an employer can show that they are taking precautions, it could be difficult for a worker who quits to get unemployment benefits. Kornya said there is no “bright line” answer, and it all comes down to judicial proceedings in each individual case.

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend acknowledged this at a news conference Thursday, using more nuanced language than the news release sent by her agency last week.

“We want to remind all individuals that if you are recalled to work and choose not to return, you may lose eligibility for unemployment benefits in addition to losing your job,” Townsend said.

She said people can still qualify for unemployment payments if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, caring for a household member with COVID-19, you or a member of your household are in a high-risk category and have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine, you lack child care or transportation to work because of COVID-19, or you recovered from the virus but health complications prevent you from being able to work.

Iowans in the high-risk health category could also qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance. Townsend said that assistance could also apply to people who are afraid to go to work because they have a family member in a high-risk category.

“That is something you would need to work out with your employer and the doctor of your family member regarding what kind of medical risk there would be, where you work, what kind of environment you would be asked to work in,” Townsend said.

IWD reported 28,827 initial claims for unemployment insurance were filed last week, and 170,990 people are receiving unemployment assistance.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter