- On Thursday, the Labor Department expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits.
- The benefits now include workers who didn’t return to or accept jobs due to COVID safety concerns.
- But those who quit their jobs over safety concerns aren’t eligible for the expanded benefits.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
The Labor Department expanded unemployment eligibility on Thursday, opening it to workers who didn’t return to work or accept a new position over COVID safety fears.
The new eligibility criteria also extends to school employees who lost work due to closures and people who lost hours or their jobs because of the pandemic.
The move builds on an executive order that President Joe Biden issued in January that widened eligibility for assistance under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which covers those who aren’t eligible for regular unemployment benefits but are unable to work due to the pandemic.
“There have been tons of workers in this pandemic who’ve been denied benefits because they’ve been offered a job that’s actually not safe,” Heidi Shierholz, the director of policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told Insider.
She added: “One of the key things this does is just makes it very clear that if you get offered a job that is not safe because of COVID risks, you can still get PUA. And I just think that that’s super meaningful.”
Benefits are also retroactive for those who were previously ineligible for PUA, which covers January 27, 2020 and onwards. However, workers who filed after December 27, 2020 can only receive retroactive benefits from December 6 on.
“This probably helps because there were people falling through the cracks in state unemployment insurance programs,” University of Chicago economist Bruce Meyer told Insider. “And many states were not doing a good job of determining eligibility for unemployment insurance – and many people were not getting the benefits to which they were entitled.”
Labor Dept. officials told reporters they could not estimate how many people would become newly eligible for jobless assistance. But not every type of worker would benefit from the new guidelines.
“One group who still falls through the cracks are folks who quit their jobs because they were unsafe,” Elizabeth Pancotti, policy director of Employ America, said in an interview. “If you quit your job because you felt unsafe at work, technically you’re not covered by this expansion.”
Millions still unemployed
Thursday’s jobs report showed some slight recovery for unemployment. Weekly jobless claims dropped to 730,000, lower than some economists anticipated. The numbers of Americans with continuing claims – those still filing for unemployment – dropped to 4.4 million.
But millions of Americans remain unemployed with a $300 federal unemployment benefit expiring in mid-March. The official jobless rate stands at 6.3%, though Federal Reserve officials say it is likely near 10% after factoring in certain trends.
Throughout the pandemic, low-wage workers, women, and workers of color have all been disproportionately impacted by job losses. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women are down over 5.3 million jobs since the pandemic’s onset – and many may have dropped out of the labor force altogether.
Regardless, the updated eligibility will cover a larger swath of workers, while potentially illustrating larger problems with the distribution of unemployment benefits.
“It’s a desperate measure in the face of a failure by state agencies to effectively administer the law,” Meyer said.