Virginia Employment Commission building (copy)

The Virginia Employment Commission has had to hire more staffers to process unemployment claims.

RICHMOND — Businesses from shopping malls to barber shops started to reopen Friday under Gov. Ralph Northam’s loosened stay-at-home restrictions.

But for now, the more than 300,000 people receiving unemployment benefits through the state still won’t have to go out every week looking for jobs to continue receiving weekly checks.

Northam’s chief work force adviser, Megan Healy, said the administration had been considering reinstating the program’s job search requirement as part of the first phase of the state’s reopening. Normally, recipients must certify weekly that they applied for at least two jobs — a requirement Northam waived in March amid mass business closures.

Healy said the administration ultimately decided against bringing back the rule because Northam agreed to allow Northern Virginia to keep tighter business restrictions in place. She also noted that the state’s 61 workforce and job training centers remain closed.

“I want to make sure people that are doing the work search, they have someone there that can hold their hand and work with them if they’re looking for a new job or their job isn’t there anymore,” she said.

Asked when people should expect the requirement to be put back in place, she said “it will probably be weeks out.”

Some employers have worried it will be difficult to convince workers to return to low-wage jobs because Congress approved an extra $600 a week for unemployed workers through July 31.

“My line cooks are making $960 a week on unemployment and none of them want to come back because I can’t pay them that. I don’t blame them,” restaurant owner and chef Joe Sparatta told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month.

But employers do have a stick they can wield if a worker refuses a job offer. If they inform the Virginia Employment Commission of the offer, the person’s benefits are suspended.

Workers can appeal, but Northam’s administration says they’re still working out whether concerns about workplace safety, individual health circumstances or childcare will be considered valid reasons for refusing a job.

“Obviously now it’s a tenuous situation with folks now being offered their positions back,” Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said last week. “I think many workers have many valid concerns. There’s an adjudication process if someone does not want to come back because they think their workplace is unsafe or the right precautions have not been put in place. I think there will be tension with the Trump administration over how this is handled nationally.”

So far, no workers have been kicked off the program for refusing work during the pandemic, said Joyce Fogg, a spokeswoman for the employment commission.

She warned “that will be quickly changing,” adding that “VEC is getting information from many employers saying they have asked employees back and they are refusing and from employees saying they want to refuse.”

The Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, nonpartisan online news outlet based in Richmond covering state government and policy.

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