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On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused by the pandemic have led 30 million Americans to file for unemployment insurance.
Some, among the millions of American workers laid off because of the COVID-19, are beginning to face a tough choice — return to work and risk infection, or stay home and risk losing unemployment payments, The Associated Press reported Thursday.
The decision is most pressing in states where governors have started allowing businesses such as restaurants to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.
On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused by the pandemic had led 30 million Americans to file for unemployment insurance or roughly 1 of every six workers.
The design of the unemployment system adds to the pressure. If an employer calls back laid-off workers, they must report to work or are likely to lose their benefits.
That's because unemployment insurance is designed to tide people over until they can get back to a job, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project in New York.
"An unemployed worker cannot refuse suitable work and still continue to collect unemployment insurance," Evermore said. "Presumably, the job you used to have is suitable."
Fear of getting sick or worries that an employer isn't providing adequate infection protection are generally not reasons someone can file for benefits. The latter concern is getting more complicated because some businesses are lobbying to keep employees and customers from suing them over coronavirus transmission.
Lacey Ward, a hairstylist in Omaha, Nebraska, filed for unemployment benefits in mid-March and is still waiting for the first payment. She's been forced to drain her family's savings and feels increasing pressure to return to work. Still, she is worried that Gov. Pete Ricketts' decision to let salons reopen Monday could put her, her husband, and two young sons at risk.
Ward, 38, said she would prefer to collect unemployment until the risk from the virus subsides, and it's clearer whether she can offer services like shampooing. She co-owns the salon but makes money only off her own clients.
"I would rather be safe than sorry," Ward said."
On the other hand, some workers are ready to go back. Kathryn Marsilli, 33, is a manager and server at The Collins Quarter restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.
She knows she may make less at work because of reduced business and would like a way for those with fears of the virus to stay home. But she said she wants to go back out of loyalty to the owner and because she's not interested in trying to maximize her unemployment benefits.
"My future where I work is more important to me than trying to get what I can now," Marsilli said.
Other workers may be tempted to hold on to unemployment. Especially in some low-wage regions, laid-off workers may receive more money with the state benefit and the additional $600 a week provided by Congress than they were on the job. The federal boost ends July 31.
Meanwhile, Georgia labor officials are trying to balance the needs of business owners with the genuine concerns of workers. State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said he's telling businesses that are easing into reopening and don't need all their employees to call in those who are willing to work and leave the others to the unemployment system.