Beth Townsend

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, April 30, in Johnston, Iowa. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP, pool)

State officials are warning Iowans who don’t return to work due to fears of COVID-19 that they will not be eligible for unemployment benefits — but Iowa law suggests otherwise.

In a move that made headlines nationally, Iowa Workforce Development and Gov. Kim Reynolds recently announced that refusing to return to work due to COVID-19 concerns would be considered a “voluntary quit,” and Iowans who quit their jobs would be ineligible for unemployment benefits.

IWD then took the additional step of asking Iowa employers to report workers who do not return as requested to ensure those individuals are recognized as having voluntarily left their jobs.

IWD also warned Iowa workers that submitting false information to the agency in an attempt to seek benefits could result in “serious consequences,” including prosecution.

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Reynolds said. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

That’s not entirely true.

In recent years, Iowans who were told by their bosses to perform tasks that violated safety policies or federal regulations, as well as Iowans who faced threats of workplace violence, have all been awarded benefits after walking off the job.

That’s because Iowa law states that when a worker voluntarily quits employment due to unsafe working conditions, the quit is deemed to be for good cause and is attributable to the actions of the employer — which means the worker is eligible for benefits, assuming all other requirements are met.

Here’s the catch: It’s not enough for a worker to simply feel unsafe. There has to be some evidence that the job is, in fact, unsafe, and that the employer had an opportunity to rectify the situation.

For workers in certain meatpacking plants and nursing homes, demonstrating the risk of contracting COVID-19 would be relatively easy: The sheer number of infections in the workplace would weigh heavily against any argument that the employer made the workplace safe through mitigation efforts.

Despite this, the overriding message from IWD and Reynolds has been that workers stand to lose their unemployment benefits if they don’t go back to work when asked.

“The IWD and governor are certainly trying to persuade employees that they will not remain eligible for unemployment benefits if they refuse to go back to work when recalled,” said Stuart Higgins, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in employment law.

He points out that IWD’s announcement about unemployment benefits listed some criteria through which workers might still be eligible for benefits after quitting but “conspicuously failed” to mention that under longstanding Iowa law, any worker can resign due to unsafe working conditions and collect benefits.

“Obviously,” Higgins said, “the million-dollar question is, ‘What constitutes an unsafe working condition such that an employee is justified in refusing to return to work?’ Based on my experience, I suspect IWD will need to do individual assessments to determine what circumstances create an unsafe working condition.”

If Iowa Workforce Development denies benefits to a worker, an appeal can be filed and the case will be heard informally by an IWD fact-finder. The fact-finder’s decision can also be appealed, which will result in a formal hearing, probably by telephone, with sworn testimony given to an administrative law judge.

Higgins said unemployment benefits are more likely to be awarded in cases where companies fail to adhere to guidance from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the Iowa Department of Public Health or other public health agencies and regulators.

“I suspect that IWD will consider an employee’s risk factors and the level of risk the work presents,” Higgins said.

Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, said “voluntary quits are generally not eligible for benefits,” but acknowledged that workers can qualify for benefits by successfully arguing unsafe working conditions.

“They will need to be able to establish this is true if an employer contests the claim,” Townsend said. “An employer demonstrating the efforts they have made to make the workplace safe may defeat this claim.”

She said that’s why IWD is strongly encouraging all employees who are concerned about their workplace to raise those issues with their employer and give the company the opportunity to address the concerns.

She noted that some employees who cannot return to work when recalled, and who would otherwise be ineligible for benefits, might still meet the criteria for collecting assistance from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefit program.

Higgins points out that in addition to unemployment benefits, Iowa workers have other rights that could come into play as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, he said, it is illegal for an employer to terminate a worker simply because the employee raises concerns about workplace safety. “If that happens, the employee may have the right to sue the employer for wrongful termination in addition to being eligible for unemployment benefits,” Higgins said.

Secondly, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Iowa Civil Rights Act offer additional protections for employees who suffer from a disability. These laws might require the employer to create accommodations that alleviate an employee’s concerns about returning to work.

Higgins noted that recent changes to federal law also permit employees to take paid leave as a result of COVID-19.

“If we are going to call workers ‘essential’ and mandate that their workplaces remain open — as the president has now done in the case of meatpacking workers — we have a moral and legal responsibility to keep these workers safe,” Higgins said. “I very much sympathize with workers who are being recalled to work to places where the risk of infection is high.

“When recalled, they will have a tough decision to make. Will they go back to work, risking the health of themselves and their families? Or will they refuse to go to work and risk being denied the social safety net that is unemployment benefits? If they are denied benefits, the job market is bleak.”