COVID-related unemployment eligibility disputes on the rise, Hawaii lawyers say

Updated: Apr. 5, 2021 at 6:05 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - When Kailua resident Carol’s workplace reopened in July, she still felt it was too unsafe to return.

The 74-year-old school cafeteria worker said she and husband, who is 78, are in a high-risk group and her husband has heart disease.

But the school told the Labor Department she was refusing to work, denying her unemployment.

“Unemployment said that because I was not available to work ... that I wasn’t eligible because I quit my job. I didn’t quit my job,” she said.

Carol is one of many workers who are now appealing the Labor Department’s denial of their unemployment eligibility.

Lawyers representing workers and employers say cases like this depend on whether the employers can prove they are providing a safe workplace.

“An employer who is not following CDC guidelines or not otherwise covered by the state emergency order in some way is running a risk,” said Tony Gill, an attorney for unions and employees.

But Jeff Harris, who represents employers added:

“From the employers standpoint, I think it’s reasonable to take the position we have work for you ... we have taken all of the precautions taken by the CDC and if you don’t go back to work, we’re going to tell the department there was available work,” he said.

Lawyers said there’s also potential for conflict ahead for mandating the use masks and requiring workers to get vaccinated.

They said employers can require their workers to wear masks on the job.

“I think that’s a slam dunk for the employer,” said Harris.

But they added that current vaccinations only have emergency approval -- so they must be voluntary.

“The vaccines are on an emergency use authorization therefore they don’t fit in any of the standard regulations -- the regulations haven’t caught up with reality,” said Gill.

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