Virginia cuts off unemployment benefits to 12,000 people for refusing to return to work

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Employment Commission said Thursday it’s cut off unemployment benefits to more than 12,000 people the agency says have refused to return to work.

“As employers have resumed operations, many have attempted to recall furloughed or laid-off employees to work,” the agency said in a statement. “While certain circumstances, such as health, childcare or other caregiver responsibilities, may warrant continued payments of unemployment benefits to a claimant who has refused to return to work, the payments will be paused pending the outcome of an administrative review.”

The employment commission set up a portal in mid-May for employers to report employees who refuse job offers. They say they’re “required to follow processes outlined in state and federal law.”

Labor groups, including the Virginia AFL-CIO, have voiced frustration that the state has begun reopening before wide-spread workplace safety standards have been put in place that can be used to hold employers accountable for dangerous working conditions related to the virus.

The state Safety and Health Codes Board is currently accepting comments on proposed rules, which among other things would mandate social distancing and require employers to notify employees within 24 hours if a coworker tests positive for COVID-19.

The employment commission has struggled to keep up with a historic surge of applications for benefits, which under the federal CARES Act include an extra $600-a-week in pandemic assistance.

The commission says it’s received nearly 850,000 applications for benefits since mid-March and paid out more than $4.2 billion in benefits.

It’s still working to clear a backlog of nearly 80,000 claims that require administrative review.