COVID-19 concerns kept a Virginia woman from returning to work, now unemployment benefits have stopped

"Wearing a ventilator is not what I'm looking for."
Posted at 10:31 AM, Dec 30, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- There are approximately 10,000 people who have refused to go back to work due to concerns about COVID-19 who are currently waiting for the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) to make a determination about whether or not they should receive benefits.

Among them, a Virginia woman who works at a grocery store and is over the age of 80.

She put her job on pause when the pandemic began and applied for unemployment benefits that she initially received, but by the end of September, they stopped while the VEC investigated her case.

She lives in a small town and asked us to keep her identity confidential.

"People are desperate for whatever little bit they can get to carry them through this very difficult time," she said.

At more than 80 years of age, the woman said she just could not risk getting COVID-19.

"Wearing a ventilator is not what I'm looking for," she said.

Especially, she said, when many of the customers at the store still, to this day, do not wear masks.

"I can't put myself in the position of coming into contact with so many different people," the woman said.

She applied for an extension of her benefits and received two payments, but those abruptly stopped at the end of September.

Since then, nothing.

"Is it not easy or possible to live off of social security? No, that's why I went to work in the first place, to supplement that," the woman said.

She said she believes her benefits stopped because her employer asked her to come back to work and she refused.

"When I came to the question, did you turn down any work this week, I had to put that I did. I didn't technically turn down the work, but I did, I was not able to go in for my own safety," she said.

Her refusal to go back to work puts her in a bucket with about 10,000 other people who do not feel comfortable returning to work during the pandemic, so their cases have to be reviewed by a deputy who will decide if they get benefits.

There is a backlog for reviewing their cases.

A spokeswoman for the VEC told CBS 6 that, generally speaking, an individual would not be eligible for unemployment if they refuse an offer to work due to COVID concerns.

"I can guarantee you the majority of those people have valid reasons for not being able to go back to work at this time," she said.

Megan Healy, the Governor's Chief Workforce Adviser, told CBS 6 they do take each individual case very seriously, and using "good cause" can award benefits to claimants who provide documentation about reasons why they cannot work.

Healy said the VEC had not received documentation from the woman we spoke with yet.

But, she added that Governor Ralph Northam ordered benefits be paid to individual while their claims are being reviewed after documentation is received.

"I am glad to get the vaccination and when this all smooths over I would certainly like to go back to work," the woman said.

She told us she mailed back her documentation on the 24th.

After CBS 6 got involved, someone from the VEC called the woman Tuesday and they appear to be expediting her case.

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