A look at unemployment options as WNY begins to re-open

Local News

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – As the economy begins to re-open, and some New Yorkers prepare to go back to work, a Buffalo labor attorney says employers should work with employees on their coronavirus concerns.

“I generally advise employers on employment issues. What I’ve told a lot of our clients is that they need to deal with employees on a case-by-case basis,” said Benjamin Mudrick, a partner at Harter, Secrest, and Emery who specialized in labor law. “If you have an employee who comes to you and says, ‘I am really fearful because of my health or a family member’s health, you have an obligation to work with that person and find a solution.”

According to new numbers released Wednesday, more than $10 billion in unemployment funds have been paid out to more than 2 million New Yorkers since the coronavirus crisis began. Unemployment nationwide ballooned to 14.7 percent in April.

Western New York began phase one of re-opening on Tuesday. As more places open their doors, in theory, more people will be heading back to work.

“(If) I’m immunocompromised and can’t return to work safely, I may be eligible for unemployment,” said Mudrick. “I would never advise someone not to apply for unemployment in that circumstance.”

But it’s a different story if you decide to stay on unemployment because you’re making more money that way, he added.

Mudrick added, “If you quit a job because the employer did something like change your hours or your schedule, then you may get unemployment in that circumstance.

“The real question the Department of Labor will look at is ‘Is this individual ready, willing, and able to work?’ and, ‘Is a job available to them that is equivalent to wha they were doing in the past?'”

State labor officials point out public health guidance is in place to keep people safe as they head back to work.

“The important thing to note here is New York is NOT allowing businesses to reopen in unsafe environments or with unsafe conditions,” said New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. 

“Anyone who feels they are working in an unsafe environment should report it to the DOL,” Reardon added.

The important thing to note here is New York is NOT allowing businesses to reopen in unsafe environments or with unsafe conditions — unlike some other states, we are taking a data-driven approach to re-opening that is premised on protecting public health. For essential businesses that are currently operating, the state has strict health protocols, including social distancing, PPE for public-facing staff, and cleaning/sanitizing. 

Anyone who feels they are working in an unsafe environment should report it to the DOL so we can immediately investigate the situation – you can file a complaint right on the DOL website at labor.ny.gov/COVIDcomplaint.

-Roberta Reardon, NYS Department of Labor Commissioner

Labor officials say those on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance can’t turn down a job because of a generalized fear of COVID-19. But, they can turn down a job because of a specific COVID-19 health issue, or a COVID-19 non-health issue, such as if they are a child’s primary caretake and they can’t go to school.

They also say those who go back to work may still be eligible for partial benefits. They would lose one-quarter of their weekly benefit for each day worked. Earning more than $504 would reduce a person’s benefits to zero.

Chris Horvatits is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2017. See more of his work here.

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