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Can Californians still collect unemployment benefits if they refuse to go back to work?

There are a few exceptions being made for workers who face a high-risk of getting COVID-19 if they return to work.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — As the California economy slowly reopens in phases, employers are calling workers back, and Californians are being warned that state law indicates they cannot refuse "suitable" work in order to collect unemployment, nor can they stay on unemployment benefits because it pays more than a job. 

There are a few exceptions being made for workers who face a high-risk of getting COVID-19 if they return to work.

Adam Argiro, a San Diego bartender, recently got the call from his employer to return to work, but he wouldn't be serving drinks.

"They told us we could come back in small teams to either do maintenance, marketing, in house training, or outreach programs,” he said.

His issue wasn't just with the new role. It was also the fear of being exposed to the deadly virus.

“My wife had cancer and so her immune system is compromised. I have to be responsible for her and our family,” he said.

Argiro is not alone.

State lawmakers said workers across California are turning down jobs over safety concerns.

“Not returning to work is what you're being told to do by the government, so how can we then deny you unemployment insurance. It really doesn't make sense,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego).

Gonzalez said workers will lose unemployment benefits unless they can prove they're in an "elevated risk" category.

“When you get offered a job and you're on unemployment benefits, you do have to alert the state. While you do that, you also can tell them why you think it's inappropriate for you to accept that job,” she explained.

In a new list of questions and answers just posted to the state Employment Department's website, it’s in writing:

"Would you qualify for benefits if you choose to stay at home from work due to underlying health conditions and concerns about exposure to the virus?”

The short answer: Yes.

“We know of examples where the state agreed the risk was too high,” said Gonzalez.

She is one of several lawmakers pushing legislation aiming to protect workers' health. Her bill would make employees eligible for worker's compensation if they get COVID-19.

Governor Gavin Newsom has indicated the comeback will still be slow.

“I think there’s a deep desire for people to come back to work. Not everybody's going to come back right away,”  Newsom said during a press briefing this week.

To learn more information on how your specific return to work scenario might affect your benefits eligibility, visit the California EED's facts website.

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