N.H. Employment Security

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

The N.H. Employment Security office at The Center at Colony Mill in Keene.

As New Hampshire allows certain businesses to reopen this month, many laid-off employees may be called back to work. Whether or not they can refuse those offers and keep collecting unemployment benefits depends on whether they are doing so for reasons considered valid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People receiving unemployment benefits due to the pandemic are not required to actively seek work right now, though the U.S. Department of Labor says they must accept an “offer of suitable employment” — such as an employer calling them back to the job. However, they’re not required to go back to work if they are unable to do so for certain pandemic-related reasons, including health concerns or compliance with a state’s stay-at-home order. Those specific reasons are outlined in the federal CARES Act.

“If you refuse a job offer or [refuse] returning to a prior employer … as long as you meet one of the other eligibility criteria, you continue to be eligible for benefits,” said Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of the N.H. Department of Employment Security.

He said that the state unemployment system will not cut off someone’s benefits if they self-certify that they have a valid reason to stay home.

The Department of Employment Security has published a list of those criteria online at unemploymentbenefits.nh.gov, along with answers to some commonly asked questions.

More than 125,000 New Hampshire residents who work in-state — about 16 percent of the workforce — filed for unemployment between March 15 and April 25, according to figures released Thursday by the department.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor put the national unemployment rate as of mid-April at 14.7 percent as the country shed an unprecedented 20.5 million jobs in a month.

Lavers spoke to The Sentinel on Thursday, about a week after Gov. Chris Sununu announced modifications to his stay-at-home order. The changes allow all stores, hair salons and golf courses to reopen Monday and restaurants to start serving in outdoor settings next week.

Lavers was clear: You cannot refuse an opportunity to go back to work solely because you want to keep collecting unemployment benefits that are higher than what you’d earn on the job.

If you receive a suitable offer of work, “you can’t refuse it just because you want to continue unemployment,” he said. “That would not make you eligible.”

The U.S. Department of Labor says quitting work without “good cause” just to receive unemployment benefits is fraud and potentially subject to criminal prosecution.

The federal agency also says that quitting a job out of a general worry about COVID-19 does not qualify someone for unemployment assistance.

But Lavers said complying with Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order, which runs until May 31, is a valid reason.

“In short, an individual following the state’s active stay-at-home order would continue to qualify for unemployment benefits,” he wrote in an email. “This is not a generalized concern but rather is compliance with the stay-at-home order.”

Additionally, someone who has been advised by medical professionals to stay at home due to heightened health risks — such as age or an underlying medical condition — can decline a job offer without losing benefits, Lavers said.

Sununu underlined that point in his May 1 news conference announcing the changes to the stay-at-home order.

“If a worker wants to remain in their unemployment phase because there’s a health risk to them, [then] they can remain doing that,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about people who are at especially high risk for severe illness because of their age or a pre-existing health problem.

The CARES Act lays out various other ways people remain eligible for benefits if they cannot work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes you or a member of your household having COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms; caring for a child whose school or child care center is closed due to the pandemic; and self-quarantining on the advice of a health care provider or government official, according to N.H. Employment Security’s online portal.

Lavers said that parents and caretakers who are staying home with children due to school closures can continue to do so after the school year ends, if child care is not available for reasons related to COVID-19.

“If your traditional options for daycare are not available to you this summer, then you also would continue to be eligible,” he said.

Lavers said it’s up to each person to determine whether they meet one of the eligibility criteria.

“Each individual needs to assess and review the reasons for eligibility,” he said. “And if they are able to certify as to meeting one of those, the CARES Act requires states to honor the self-certification of the individual. We are not allowed to require further documentation as to any of those specific areas.”

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS