What is Suitable Work?
Before COVID-19 entered into national prominence, “suitable work” in Michigan was determined by the Michigan Employment Security Act (MESA), an act created to address unemployment benefits in Michigan. The act, amongst many things, defined “unemployment” and “suitable work,” and established the Michigan Employment Security Commission (MESC). Suitable work is an important factor for those applying for unemployment benefits in Michigan. Among the eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits, the “suitable work requirement” is paramount. Before COVID-19, if someone who applied for unemployment benefits in Michigan refused “suitable” work, they were not eligible for those benefits. Per the MESC, “suitable” work is determined based upon “the degree of risk involved to the individual’s health, safety, and morals, the individual’s physical fitness and prior training, the individual’s length of unemployment and prospects for securing local work in the individual’s customary occupation, and the distance of the available work from the individual’s residence.” Furthermore, the commission considered someone’s “experience and prior earnings, but an unemployed individual who refuses an offer of work determined to be suitable under this section shall be denied benefits if the pay rate for that work is at least 70% of the gross pay rate he or she received immediately before becoming unemployed.”
Work is considered, in Michigan, to be not suitable “and benefits shall not be denied under this act to an otherwise eligible individual for refusing to accept new work under any of the following conditions:
(a) If the position offered is vacant due directly to a strike, lockout, or other labor dispute.
(b) If the remuneration, hours, or other conditions of the work offered are substantially less favorable to the individual than those prevailing for similar work in the locality.
(c) If as a condition of being employed, the individual would be required to join a company union or to resign from or refrain from joining a bona fide labor organization.
In response to COVID-19, the US Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in early 2020. This act addressed certain changes in unemployment benefits; among them is a description of “suitable” work. “Suitable” work now also includes whether workplace conditions are safe per state and federal requirements and guidance on COVID-19. As of July 16, 2020, if a workplace is “unable or unwilling to provide a safe workplace required by current state and federal law and guidance,” the work is not considered to be suitable.
If an unemployed person refuses to accept “suitable work” without “good cause,” they can lose their unemployment benefits. If the Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) finds that the employee did not have good cause to refuse to return to work, the employee: (1) will not be eligible for further unemployment benefits, and (2) will l have to pay back unemployment benefits they may have received after they refused the work. If the UIA finds that the employee did have good cause to refuse to return to work, the employee will continue to be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Pursuant to Governor Whitmer’s Executive Orders, federal law, and UIA guidance, “good cause” has also been expanded to include a variety of different circumstances in light of COVID-19, including:
- The individual’s normally available transportation is now unavailable.
- The individual is under self-isolation or self-quarantine in response to elevated risk from COVID-19 due to being immuno-compromised.
- The individual has had contact in the last 14 days with someone with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19
- The individual has a family care responsibility as a result of COVID-19 and does not have access to customary arrangement or a reasonable alternative.
- Merely being afraid to return to work is not good cause.
The last point is particularly important for people to understand. Per the UIA and the U.S. Department of Labor, being afraid is not a good reason to not return to work. If your employer allows you to work remotely and you have medical or other reasons that you cannot return to work physically, you must do the work remotely. If your employer offers a remote option and you do not have a reason to refuse work for “good cause,” you are likely to be denied unemployment benefits in Michigan. For the full list, please see the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency Fact Sheet #145C, June 2020.
How Does This Affect Working Parents?
Pursuant to the governor’s Executive Order 2020-76, federal law, and guidance from the UIA, “good cause” has been expanded to include a variety of different circumstances in light of COVID-19. A person can now say they have “good cause” to refuse suitable work because they “[have] a family care responsibility as a result of COVID-19 and [do] not have access to customary arrangement or a reasonable alternative.” This includes people that must miss work either to take care of children if school is closed, or if summer childcare arrangements are closed due to a government directive or COVID-19. Although Michigan’s current unemployment insurance policy does not include the previously mentioned reason as “good cause,” federal unemployment insurance, also known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to individuals who:
(1) are not eligible for other federal or state unemployment insurance or pandemic emergency unemployment compensation; (2) meet certain conditions related to being unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable to work due to COVID-19; (3) are not able to telework; and (4) are not receiving other paid leave.
Per section 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I)(dd) of the CARES Act, a person “who is the “primary caregiver” of a child who is at home due to a forced school closure that directly results from the COVID-19 public health emergency” has “good cause” to refuse suitable work. However, the U.S. Department of Labor specifies that, in order to qualify as a primary caregiver, the “provision of care to the child must require such ongoing and constant attention that it is not possible for you to perform your customary work functions at home.”
That said, “if your employer allows you to telework and you are caring for a more mature child who is able to care for him or herself for much of the day, you likely would not qualify for PUA because you are still able to work.” Furthermore, “a school is not closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency, for purposes of 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I)(dd), after the date the school year was originally scheduled to end.” If it’s the summer, when schools are traditionally closed for summer break, a person could only qualify for PUA if “the facility that they rely on to provide summer care for the child is also closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.” As we look towards the beginning of a new academic year, please visit here or here for updated orders and guidance.
Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor the state provide guidance on an exact age for what’s considered a “more mature child.” Upon reviewing information on what age you can legally leave a child at home alone in Michigan, the state government offers the following: “You may want to evaluate your child’s maturity and how he or she has demonstrated responsible behavior in the past. The following questions may help: Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself? Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?” Furthermore, the Michigan Children’s Protective Services Manual directs investigators who are looking into cases of neglect to consider the same questions. It is not certain if the state or federal government uses those guidelines to help establish their meaning of a “more mature” child, but it may be helpful to caregivers to consider those two questions when applying for unemployment under PUA.