If you quit your job due to your concern that you may be exposed to COVID-19 at work, whether you are eligible for unemployment benefits will boil down to whether you had a “good reason to quit caused by the employer.” (See https://www.uimn.org/applicants/needtoknow/job-separations/index.jsp.) This is the same standard that applied before the pandemic.
While the above-cited website explains that a “good reason to quit” is a reason “that would compel an average reasonable worker to quit,” that explanation remains vague. Minnesota courts have provided some additional guidance. Since at least the 1970’s, via the Minnesota Supreme Court case of Ferguson v. Department of Employment Services, the court has clarified that unsafe working conditions can give the employee a “good reason” to quit. Eligibility depends on whether the employee’s safety concerns were reasonable – based on the information known to the employee at the time the employee made the decision to quit, not on whether the conditions were in fact safe.
Proving Unsafe Working Conditions in Court
I took a case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals on this issue. My client was a nurse in a prison where the nurses kept getting physically assaulted. Because of the assaults and the prison’s failure to make any changes to try to improve safety, my client quit and sought unemployment. The unemployment law judge essentially said that if you work in a prison, then you should expect to get assaulted and, thus, ruled that the nurse was ineligible for unemployment. That’s nonsense, and the Court of Appeals agreed. It determined that the frequency of assaults and the prison’s failure to try to improve the conditions gave the nurse a “good reason” to quit and that it was caused by the employer.
Requesting Unemployment When Your Employer Doesn’t Take COVID-19 Seriously
While there is no blanket right to unemployment benefits if you refuse to work because of the pandemic, you should be eligible if you can show that your employer failed to put in place appropriate safety measures. The focus will be on the specific work environment and what your employer was doing to protect you. And, importantly, these facts will be analyzed based on the information known to you at the time you quit. So, employers need to make sure they are communicating with their employees.
Conversely, for unemployment and most other legal rights, it is often crucial that you address the issue directly with the employer. If your employer calls you back to work, make sure you communicate with your employer and express your safety concerns. Employees who fail to do so consistently find it harder to get unemployment benefits or to enforce their other legal rights. Contact us if you have questions on these issues. Our employment law attorneys can be reached at 612-294-2600.