It has taken almost a year, but there is now a decision from the Labor and Industry Review Commission about being able and available during the pandemic.
This case involves a part-time tour guide for the Capitol. When the pandemic struck, the Capitol building was closed to the public, those tours stopped, and she was laid off.
She applied for unemployment and, when contacted by the Department, explained that, as a 75-year-old woman with underlying health conditions she was concerned about working in a safe environment in the midst of the pandemic.
The Department subsequently denied her claim, asserting that her desire for a safe workplace was an unreasonable decision to restrict her availability.
At her hearing, she explained that she did not know how to respond to a hypothetical job offer for which the relative safety of that hypothetical job was unknown. She did explain that had the Capitol tours continued, she would have continued to work there, as she knew that this work would have been safe. But, she declined to volunteer as an election worker during the April 7th primary, as she did not think that work environment was sufficiently safe for her.
In his decision, an an administrative law judge affirmed her disqualification for NOT being available for work during the pandemic.
DWD 128.01 (7) Covid-19.
(a) Notwithstanding any other subsection in this section, the department shall consider a claimant to be available for suitable work if the claimant is perceived by an employer as exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms preventing a return to work, or the claimant is quarantined by a medical professional due to COVID-19 symptoms, or the claimant is instructed to stay home under local, state or federal government direction or guidance due to COVID-19, and one of the following applies:
1.The employer has instructed the claimant to return to work after the employee no longer exhibits symptoms, after a set amount of time to see if the disease is present, or after the quarantine is over.
2.The employer has not provided clear instruction for the claimant to return to work.
3.The claimant would be available for other work with another employer but for the perceived COVID-19 symptoms preventing a return to work or but for the quarantine.
(b) This subsection shall be good cause for not reporting for an eligibility review under s. DWD 128.03.
As obvious from this text, this exception is limited to what an employer does, a quarantine ordered by a medical provider, or a government public health order that mandates someone not report to work. So, this rule does not apply to this claimant.
The administrative law judge then explained:
In this case, the employee has not regularly worked 32 hours per week for several years. Her avoidance of working the polls on the April election day does not make her unavailable for work. However, she was not working full-time before her layoff and she is not applying for new jobs. As she would not work at a new job unless she determined the job to be safe, the full picture presented is that she is withdrawn from the full-time labor market and is not available for work.
The claimant appealed to the Labor and Industry Review Commission. In an exceptional brief by the clinic’s student coordinator, Emma Wood, she explained that everything about the claimant’s concern for a safe workplace as a 75-year-old woman was reasonable in light of the risks she faced from Covid-19 and that work searches were waived for the pandemic. The law student wrote:
To determine that [the claimant] is unavailable for suitable work because she desired safe work is to say that she is required to accept dangerous work. This is in direct contradiction of the federal and state imposition of the duty of employers to provide a place of employment free from known hazards. 29 USC § 654(a)(1), Wis. Stat. § 101.11(1). A preference for safe work should be considered at least as “understandable” as a salary preference. See, Willert, UI Hearing No. 88-401443MN (LIRC February 23, 1989).
In a decision dated 29 Jan. 2021, the Commission reversed the disqualification. The Commission wrote (footnotes replaced with citations):
As a general rule, to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits as to any given week, a claimant must he able to work, available for work, and actively seeking work during the week. [Wis. Stat. § 108.04(2)(a)] “Able to work” means that the claimant maintains an attachment to the labor market and has the physical and psychological ability to engage in some substantial gainful employment in suitable work. [Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 128.01(3)(a)] “Available for work” means that the claimant maintains an attachment to the labor market and is ready to perform full-time suitable work in the labor market. “Full-time work” means work performed for 32 hours or more per week. [Wis. Stat. § 108.02(15s)] However, an individual with a physical or psychological restriction will not be considered unavailable for work solely because of his or her inability to work full-time, provided the individual is available for suitable work for the number of hours the individual is able to work. [Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 128.01(3)(b) cited, but should be Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 128.01(4)] A claimant is not available for suitable work if he or she has withdrawn from the labor market due to restrictions on his or her availability for work. [Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 128.01(4)(a)]
Under Wis. Admin. Code § 128.01(2), an employee claiming unemployment benefits is presumed able to work and available for work, unless evidence is obtained that the claiming employee was not able to work or available for work. In her brief, the employee argues she is available for full-time work and correctly notes that her work searches were waived under the emergency administrative rule, ER2006, approved by the rule-making committee of the legislature. The commission conferred with the ALJ who conducted the hearing as to his credibility and demeanor impressions. The ALJ noted the employee was very credible and direct in her testimony and did not try to avoid any questions the ALJ asked of her. Without any contrary evidence to rebut the employee’s testimony, the employee is presumed able to and available for suitable work in her labor market. The commission’s reversal of the ALJ’s decision is based on the unrebutted presumption that the employee was able to and available for work within the meaning of Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 128.01(2) and not any differing credibility assessment.
This Commission decision does NOT accept what the claimant contended — that she had a reasonable belief in wanting a safe workplace. Rather, the Commission holds that the presumption of being able and available was not overcome in this case in light of the pandemic and Emergency Rule 2006, which waived job search requirements.
Still, this decision is important, because it shows that the Department’s efforts to disqualify a part-time worker in light of their history of part-time work is not sufficient to disqualify someone.