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Whether it was liability shields for executives or restrictions on jobless benefits, Republican policymakers have spent much of the pandemic focused on one goal: helping corporations force their employees back into unsafe workplaces. Now, it looks like the Biden administration is trying to change the dynamic, after a pressure campaign from progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers.

Back in mid 2020, we published a report in The Guardian about how the Trump administration issued a memo encouraging corporations to help the federal and state governments punish employees who refused to return to workplaces for fear of being exposed to the deadly coronavirus. This was amplified by a Labor Department edict during the pandemic declaring that “a request that a furloughed employee return to his or her job very likely constitutes an offer of suitable employment that the employee must accept.”

In effect, Republicans were attempting to weaponize draconian unemployment fraud laws in order to help employers force workers back to their jobs, even in wildly unsafe conditions. If you didn’t go back to work when your employer called, you ran the risk of losing your jobless benefits and facing steep fines.

As Republican-controlled states focused their unemployment agencies on helping corporations punish their employees, the policy achieved its goal, to disastrous effect. Compelled to choose between economic survival and risking infection, workers headed back into unsafe workplaces, and federal data tracked how workers’ requests for safety inspectors’ help consistently preceded a spike in COVID-related deaths.

But now, the White House has just announced a potentially huge change: In a fact sheet detailing new executive actions, the administration says President Biden “is asking the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.”

Biden wants his administration to modify the government’s interpretation of existing laws that say recipients of unemployment benefits cannot continue to collect such benefits if they reject offers of “suitable” work.

As Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein wrote in a May 2020 Washington Post op-ed, the word “suitable” must “be understood to imply a higher bar during the pandemic. Business is anything but usual. Absent adequate protections from infection, no job is suitable, and any worker who refuses to go back to that job must be able to stay on the unemployment rolls. No one should be forced to put themselves and their families at risk of illness and death to draw a paycheck.”

Back in May, 224 organizations asked the Trump Labor Department to clarify its definition of “suitable” work — and they got a boost from 21 Senate Democrats, who signed a letter demanding the department make clear that “workers remain eligible for unemployment benefits if they turn down a job that would force them to return to an unsafe work environment.”

These demands were ignored. But with Bernstein now serving as a top Biden economic adviser, the new administration appears intent on taking action.

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