Beth Townsend

The director of Iowa Workforce Development says some laid-off Iowans called back to work may be able to refuse for “a few, virus-related” reasons and keep getting unemployment benefits, but Beth Townsend says citing general workplace safety concerns as a reason will be difficult to prove.

“We do have a provision in our unemployment code to quit a job if they feel that their workplace is unsafe,” Townsend says. “However, it takes more than a mere assertion by the employee to establish this to be true.”

Townsend says most businesses would be able to prove they’ve made a good-faith effort to address safety concerns during the pandemic if they are following OSHA guidelines and “allowing or providing” masks and gloves.

“We want to remind all individuals that if you are recalled to work and choose not to return, you may lose eligibility for unemployment benefits in addition to losing your job,” Townsend says.

Iowa Legal Aid litigation director Alex Kornya says it could be possible for someone to get unemployment benefits if their employer isn’t doing anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it depends on what state regulators or a judge might decide.

“It is always a roll of the die if you are considering quitting because your employer is not following safe work practices,” he says.

However, Iowans who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms may refuse to return to work, if recalled and continue getting unemployment benefits. There are other virus-related exceptions and during the governor’s news conference today, Townsend read the list.

“If a member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you are caring for an individual in your household with COVID-19,” Townsend said.

Townsend indicated older Iowans and those with health conditions that put them at high-risk if they contract the virus may decline to return to work. Those who’ve suffered serious complications after having COVID-19 may keep getting unemployment if their doctor says they can’t return to work. Loss of child care or transportation to and from the job site are two other reasons for retaining unemployment benefits if you’ve been called back to work.

(Iowa Public Radio’s Katarina Sostaric contributed to this story.)