Dem bill would protect unemployment benefits for at-risk workers

State Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus. Photo from Ohio House website.

Two Democratic lawmakers say Ohioans should not have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.

To that end, they have introduced a bill seeking to protect cautious workers from losing their unemployment benefits as more and more Ohio businesses begin to reopen. 

State Reps. David Leland, D-Columbus, and Lisa Sobecki, D-Toledo, are the leading sponsors of a bill they’re calling the “Worker Protection Act.” Nearly the entire Democratic caucus has signed on to co-sponsor the bill.

Under the present system, Ohioans can lose access to their unemployment benefits if their job becomes available again but they choose not to take it. Leland and Sobecki say this system presents a challenge for workers who do not want to risk being exposed by returning to the workplace. 

In essence, the bill would allow certain people to remain eligible for unemployment under specific circumstances:

  • If the person is immunocompromised or at least 65 years old (or lives with someone who is), and is being required to work outside of their home; 
  • If the person is being required to work outside of their home for an employer that does not comply with the state government’s health safety guidelines;
  • If the person is a primary caregiver and their child care facility or school is closed because of the state’s emergency order.

In those cases, a person could choose not to work and remain at home while still receiving their unemployment benefits. The bill does not extend unemployment eligibility beyond the length of time normally allotted, but rather could keep an at-risk person eligible even if their workplace reopens.

“In Ohio, families come first,” Sobecki said in describing the bill to reporters on Tuesday.

State Rep. Lisa Sobecki. Photo from Ohio House website.

The bill also calls for businesses which don’t comply with safety requirements to be reported to their area’s health department. 

Leland and Sobecki were asked if they have heard of any instance of an Ohio worker getting kicked off of their unemployment due to the COVID-19 situations mentioned in the bill. (Earlier this month, Ohio Job and Family Services began encouraging businesses to report employees who refused to return to work.)

The lawmakers said they hadn’t heard of any such cases to this point. Sobecki said her office has fielded many calls from constituents worried about losing their benefits, and Leland noted the reopening process is still relatively new.

“Remember, we’re just getting started here,” Leland said, adding that he wants to “make sure we have these protections in place.”

Leland mentioned his participation on the Ohio House’s Economic Recovery Task Force as being an impetus for his support of the bill. The task force, made up of two-dozen state lawmakers, heard testimony from more than 100 entrepreneurs and business leaders over the course of two months. 

The Capital Journal reported that the task force never once heard from an individual worker. None of the Responsible RestartOhio advisory groups created by Gov. Mike DeWine featured a single worker, either.

Tuesday’s virtual press conference announcing the legislation did not include any workers’ voices, though it did include perspective from Anthony Caldwell, director of public affairs for the SEIU 1199 labor union based in Columbus. The lawmakers said their bill stems from having heard concerns from workers within their districts.

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.