The federal expansion of unemployment benefits under the CARES Act gave more people access to benefits, but complexities between state and federal law regarding unemployment could mean some could lose access to benefits if they aren't able or available work, even if the reason is related to the pandemic. 

More than 185k in Ohio pre-registered between May 1 and May 10 for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program alone, and 1.1 billion initial claims have been filed in Ohio according to the state's Department of Job and Family Services. 

The state reports 1.9 billion dollars as of the May 7 unemployment data release. 

But, some Ohioans getting called back to work they may have still have barriers related to COVID 19 – like kids being out of school requiring care, or someone being in the home suffering from the virus. 

And policy experts say that without clear guidance from the state, despite qualifying for federal benefits, they might be disqualified in Ohio.

“This again is going to be a very murky area,” says attorney-at-law at Community Legal Aid Services Michelle Wrona Fox. “We are going to have to see how it plays out,”

This week JFS is expected to release refusal to work guidelines related to the coronavirus reopening.  

The policy will stipulate what is considered a good cause for unemployment. They already launched an online form for reporting by employers, to complement their long existing process to audit fraud. 

Organizations Policy Matters Ohio and Ohio Poverty Law Center released a joint statement calling on the state to clarify what is an acceptable reason to quit work or not accept an offer. 

“We're going to have to hope that the state steps in or the governor steps into make some rules and some guidelines to protect workers in this situation,” says Wrona Fox who specializes in unemployment cases.  

They're asking the Governor to expand acceptable reasons to quit work or refuse an offer of work to include COVID-19-related reasons, such as having pre-existing conditions or being in a vulnerable population. And, not having appropriate childcare because of the virtualization of schools and closure of daycares. 

“Typically if you refuse work, you're not entitled to unemployment compensation, says Wrona Fox. “If you're refused work due to a covid-19 reason like a child at home, the CARES Act does seem to provide for that. But we know that the employer can step in and say we offered a job, and they refused it, and then that person would have to go through an appeals process unless the Governor were to do an executive order stating we are going to allow unemployment for that reason. 

The  CARES Act signed in March allocated funding to expand unemployment including waiving requirements and creating new qualifying conditions for unemployment. Compared to the current regular unemployment system which is funded through state  and federal payroll taxes on employers. 

"Work search requirements were waived as a result of the CARES Act provisions we have some flexibility, it did not wave the able and available to work requirement that is attached to unemployment benefit," explains JFS Director Kimberly Hall. 

The question of whether someone is available and able to work is the challenge. For some, COVID-19 related reasons like lack of childcare could make them able, but unavailable. 

“If the childcare you had counted on is not available due to the shutdown in the COVID-19 that is a reason to continue PUA, that is not a reason to continue under state law,” says Assistant Director for Employment Services Bruce Madson. 

And as of now, if you are dropped from regular unemployment because of refusal to work, you can't roll over into PUA. 

“The category of those who do not regularly qualify for unemployment doesn't also mean those who don't regularly qualify for unemployment due to being deemed ineligible because of refusal to work,” says Halo. 

If if you refuse to work, it kicks off a determination process for investigation. 

“Would have to be an individualized determination in each situation as to how that would be treated,” says Madson. “But PUA rules are different from state unemployment rules and that is what we are trying to work out now.”

JFS is expecting additional guidance from the Governor's office on the subject of childcare and it's impact on unemployment benefits.