Published on May 12th, 2020 | by Nature Humphries0
With Oxford Reopening, Workers Express Anxiety About Unemployment Benefits
On Saturday, May 9, 2020, The City of Oxford Board of Aldermen voted 4 to 3 to allow restaurants to reopen in Oxford, with strict guidelines outlined in the “Serving Oxford Safely Recovery Plan.”
Some restaurateurs were poised at the ready, opening their doors first thing Monday to enthusiastic and grateful customers. Others have taken a different approach, either citing the need for extra time to bring their establishments up to code and provide extra training for employees, or even holding off on opening their dining rooms for the time being.
We support both strategies and feel confident that local business owners who choose to reopen now will do so in a responsible way, taking all the necessary precautions.
With this recent resurgence of business, though, comes anxiety and confusion among workers who are not sure whether they should return to work right away.
On our Facebook page, one local restaurant worker asked, “Does this mean we won’t qualify for unemployment if we think it’s still unsafe to go back to work but our restaurants open? Will we lose our jobs if we opt out? So many questions.”
These are excellent questions that deserve some honest answers.
The Mississippi Department of Unemployment Services website, although it claims to be easy to use, is often confusing and intimidating, especially given the recent special provisions for COVID-19.
I reached out to Mississippi Senator Nicole Akins Boyd, who represents Oxford in District 9, to ask some questions about the Governor’s newest executive order concerning this topic.
(Read the Governor’s press release here, which includes a link to the full executive order.)
The short answer is no, you will not lose your unemployment benefits for the time being, even if you do return to work.
In addition to waiving the one-week waiting period through December 26, 2020, and “further extending financial support of Mississippians out of work due to COVID-19, the Governor is increasing the $40 earning allowance to $200 from May 3, 2020 until June 27, 2020.”
This means that Mississippi workers who remain below the maximum wages allowable will still be eligible for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which is an additional $600 per week in benefits.
Senator Boyd worked with other lawmakers to come up with a simple equation to help calculate this:
$200 + (MS weekly benefit amount – $1) = Maximum amount in wages to keep your PUA
The weekly benefit amount will vary from person to person, but as an example, one could earn up to $434 per week and continue to receive the $600 per week PUA benefit.
“This will last until June 27,” said Senator Boyd. “So people can feel like they can start going back to work some. Most of our restaurants in Oxford don’t have their full staff back yet full time, so this will be a way for people to [get started]. Hopefully the economy and the number of customers will pick up during that period of time, and we can all start transitioning back to full-time employment. Because that’s our goal—Mayor Tannehill has stated that the goal of the city is to get up and running by August 1.”
But what about those who feel it is still unsafe to return to work? According to the Governor’s May 11 executive order, the “able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work requirements for receiving Unemployment insurance benefits … shall be reasonably interpreted … in the case of individuals unable to search for work because of COVID-19, including because of illness, quarantine, or movement restriction.”
In other words, workers’ unemployment benefits should be safe through the duration of the order, which ends June 27.
As far as losing your job if your restaurant opens and you decide not to return to work right away, that is up to the employers. But the state will not take away unemployment benefits in this case.
The key is for everyone is to continue to take the appropriate precautions.
“This is going to be our new normal for a while, and we have got to learn to function. I hope we can be smart about how we reopen,” said Senator Boyd. “We have a responsibility to not just protect ourselves; we have a responsibility to protect others. We have to wear our masks, … wash our hands, use our hand sanitizer, and we have a responsibility to social distance.”
If you have additional questions, the Unemployment Security Commission has an additional call center that is open from 7 am to 10 pm week days. The number is 888-844-3577. People have had the most success with calling in the early hours between 7 and 8:30 am, or after 6 pm, said Senator Boyd.
If you can’t get the help you need through the call center or the MDES website, email Senator Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mississippi Representative Clay Deweese at email@example.com. Include specific details about your problem, your address, and work history (don’t email your social security number!), and they will forward the message to Employment Security to help you get the attention you need.
Senator Boyd and our other lawmakers are working diligently to help get our economy back on track amid this crisis.
“We need to learn how to take better precautions,” said Boyd. “We’ve got to do this so that we can return to society and we can feel safe to move about with people. We have to be resilient in this process.”