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Biden Asks Department of Labor to “Clarify” COVID Refusal to Work Unemployment Benefit

By Thomas E. Marshall

In his first week in office, President Biden issued 37 Executive Orders, many more than any other president in their first week in office, at least in modern history.  Among these Orders is one dated January 22, 2021 entitled “Executive Order on Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/22/executive-order-economic-relief-related-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/.  It observes the economic crisis  from the pandemic “must be met by the full resources of the Federal Government.”  Executive Order, Section 1.  The Order directs that executive departments and agencies “shall promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic” and then take such actions “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, and in doing so should prioritize actions that provide the greatest relief to individuals, families, and small businesses; and to State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments.”  Executive Order, Section 2.

While the Order itself says nothing specifically about unemployment, an accompanying fact sheet discusses the issue.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/22/fact-sheet-president-bidens-new-executive-actions-deliver-economic-relief-for-american-families-and-businesses-amid-the-covid-19-crises/.  According to the fact sheet, “[b]ecause of pervasive systemic racism and inequality in our economy” minorities are hardest hit by the economic crisis.  As to unemployment benefits, the fact sheet states that “the President is asking the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.”  This Presidential question, at first look, would seem to be a legislative rather than an agency decision.  Whether the Department of Labor will issue some sort of clarification remains to be seen.  We at E&U will keep you posted as this issue develops.

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