The Investigators: Unemployment benefits, workplace safety among reasons Tennesseans aren’t returning to work

Unemployment benefits, workplace safety among reasons Tennesseans aren’t returning to work

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - More than 1,200 Tennesseans are accused of choosing not to go back to work, even though their workplaces have reopened.

Some employees have told their employers they don’t feel safe returning to work, while others say they’re making more money collecting unemployment.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators received copies of some of those complaints, which were filed with the state by various employers.

One complaint centers around a manicurist who refused to return to work because they “did not want to."

A driver allegedly “played with their hours in order to keep receiving unemployment.”

An assistant restaurant manager apparently told their employer they “made more money on unemployment.”

“That’s not a reason not to go back is because you’re making more money,” said Jeff McCord, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

According to McCord, his department is investigating more than 1,200 similar complaints statewide, made by employers about their employees.

“All of those we’re investigating and starting to work those to adjudicate those to see if there’s a valid reason for them not returning,” he told The Investigators.

Tennessee law states there are valid reasons why a person may not return to return.

For example, if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19, or if they’re caring for someone with the disease, or if they’re the primary caregiver for a child whose school or care facility is closed due to the pandemic.

If someone chooses not to go back to work or chooses to work fewer hours so they can collect unemployment, that is fraud. The person will not only owe the state the money they collected fraudulently but also, they could face criminal charges.

Some have also emailed The Investigators saying they don’t feel comfortable heading back to work.

“If a complaint comes from a person who doesn’t feel their environment is safe, TOSHA will reach out and talk to the employer,” said McCord.

TOSHA is the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, which is overseen by Commissioner McCord’s office.

So far, it has investigated 496 complaints from employees pertaining to COVID-19 in their workplaces, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson.

While neither state nor federal law regulates the spread of germs or infectious diseases in the workplace, McCord said TOSHA will reach out to the employer and inventory what they are doing to make sure they are providing a reasonably safe workplace.

According to data reviewed by The Investigators, TOSHA has investigated and closed 27 employee complaints in Shelby County.

However, not feeling safe heading back to work is not a valid reason not to work under the law.

“You’re required to return to work or you could lose their benefits,” said McCord.

McCord said his team will investigate the complaints to decide if unemployment benefits should promptly end.

While TOSHA investigates workplace complaints in Tennessee, federal OSHA investigates workplace complaints in Arkansas and Mississippi.

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