Jerry Oleksiak CareerLink

Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, gives his approval Thursday, October 25, 2018, to the new location for Pennsylvania CareerLink at Cambria County Library in downtown Johnstown.

HARRISBURG – Workers who have been receiving unemployment benefits are expected to return their jobs when asked to do so as Pennsylvania prepares to begin reopening businesses in 24 rural counties, state officials said Monday.

Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak said that employers can report workers who refuse to return to work and the Department of Labor and Industry has shared information to chambers of commerce across the state to help them guide their members who might be experiencing problems recruiting workers to return.

“If they are called back to work, they are expected to go back,” he said.

Since March 15, more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians have filed for regular unemployment compensation and close to 150,000 self-employed workers and independent contractors have filed for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

In that same tome frame, the department has paid $5.34 billion in benefits – nearly $3.9 million from regular state unemployment compensation program and over $1.44 million from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which provides workers an extra $600 per week, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

The 24 counties that will move from the red to yellow phases in the state's gradual reopening plan on Friday are: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango, and Warren.

In those counties, retail shops and most other businesses that have been closed since mid-March will begin reopening on Friday. Construction activity and businesses offering outdoor recreational activities, such as golf courses and boating marinas, were allowed to begin reopening last Friday.

Despite the relaxed restrictions, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and hair and nail salons will remain closed during the yellow phase. Restaurants will also still only be allowed to offer takeout or delivery.

Employers across the country have expressed concern that workers might refuse to return to their jobs because the federal stimulus program provides an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits.

Oleksiak said that a worker would have to convince the unemployment office that there’s a very good reason they shouldn’t have to go back to work. A worker who tries to continue receiving unemployment because it pays better than working would be committing fraud, he said.

An employee, for example, might be able to argue that they shouldn’t have to return to work if they are immune-compromised or someone in their household is immune-compromised, and they are concerned about exposure to coronavirus, said Susan Dickinson, director of unemployment policy for the Department of Labor and Industry.

Any decisions about whether workers can remain on unemployment over coronavirus worries would on “a case-by-case situation,” she said.

Asked whether a worker could seek to remain on unemployment by claiming they can’t find child-care as the businesses are allowed to reopen, Dickinson said unemployment officials would want to see evidence that they worker had made a thorough effort to locate day care.

“Did they exhaust all options?” she asked.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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