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Could high-risk groups for severe coronavirus symptoms collect unemployment? Maybe

An expert in employment law said it doesn't mean you could stay home and collect benefits even though you are in a category for severe symptoms for coronavirus.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — California is reopening, but that does not mean the coronavirus pandemic is over. Workers who fall into one of the high-risk groups for severe symptoms could still be expected back at work.

On Monday, some 2,200 employees of Sacramento County returned to work after being on paid administrative leave since March. That's according to Ted Somera, executive director of the United Public Employees, the union that represents most of those workers.

Somera said he believes many of those returning to work are older than 65 or have pre-existing health conditions, which puts them in a category of people Gov. Gavin Newsom is saying should still stay home, if possible.

Some of the factors that would put someone in a category for severe symptoms include: 

  • Being 65 years or older 
  • Having a chronic medical condition like heart disease, lung disease or diabetes
  • Having a compromised immune system

If you're nervous about physically returning to work and your employer won't let you work from home, what rights do you have?

A spokesperson with the California Employment Development Department says if your reason for not working is considered "good cause," you might still be able to collect unemployment.

Good cause "can include being over age 65 or immunocompromised, or having certain serious health conditions," a spokesperson told ABC10 on Monday.

Jennifer Shaw, an expert in employment law, told ABC10 that refusing to work over health concerns could jeopardize their eligibility for unemployment benefits.

"The right that people have is to quit their job, right? The right is to say, 'I'm not going to do this anymore,'" Shaw said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that there's going to be a benefit available to them."

However, she said, another option people could explore is going on disability.

"That person won't get unemployment because unemployment is a benefit you get when you can work but you can't find a job," Shaw said. "What they will get instead is disability, state disability insurance."

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last week that made it mandatory for people to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings. Up until that point, Newsom had allowed local governments to decide whether to make face coverings mandatory.

Shaw said the governor's order might make it harder for employees to collect unemployment. 

"By taking the next step and requiring the face coverings, what we've done essentially is said, the workplace is now safer, which means people who don't want to go are going to have a hard time making that argument," Shaw said.  

Employment Development Department officials told ABC10 that you could still be qualified for unemployment if you could prove that you are in the high-risk category for coronavirus symptoms.

However, a spokesperson said "if your employer meets government safety regulations and offers a healthy work alternative (like teleworking) and you have no other reason to refuse the work, you could be denied unemployment for 2-10 weeks. You should discuss this with your employer before you make a decision."

People refusing to work need to report this on their biweekly certification form, the EDD says. The department will review your claim and contact you and possibly your employer if they need more information.

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