can I get unemployment if I quit due to health issues?

A reader writes:

Are there any current protections for those who are high-risk for coronavirus but whose workplaces are operating on-site operations? Right now this is predominately essential workers, but some non-essential businesses as well (e.g., bookstores offering curbside pick-up). If I have asthma and live with family, including my elderly relative who has COPD, I presume that I am still not eligible for unemployment benefits if I quit my job?

I presume I am also not eligible for unemployment benefits if I have to leave my job due to childcare responsibilities as a result of school closures?

I am curious how this has been handled for essential workers but for me this is timely because my state (Colorado) is planning to increase the number of non-essential businesses that can have employees on site, with fairly reasonable limits, and my job may be affected. (I’m currently working from home but less effective here than on-site.) Some daycares will reopen. Schools won’t. And I have a chronic health condition.

Even with social distancing measures in place, going to work will increase many people’s risk of death substantially. Yet it seems to be the employer and not the employee that determines what risk level is acceptable for an individual.

Some of your info here is right, and some of it is wrong.

You’re correct that you’re not eligible for unemployment if you you quit your job (or declined to return when your company reopened) because you’re worried about your safety or a family member’s safety.

However, there are exceptions to this: If you or a family member you care for has coronavirus or symptoms of it, or if you or the family member you care for has been advised by a health care provider to quarantine, then you are eligible for unemployment. Without those things, though, then no. So your asthma and your family member’s COPD on their own don’t make you eligible, not without coronavirus symptoms or orders from a doctor. It might be worth talking to your doctor and seeing if they recommend you quarantine. In addition, the EEOC says that employees with disabilities that put them at high risk during COVID can request to work from home as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection.

But you can indeed collect unemployment if you’re unable to work because your child’s school or day care is closed because of the outbreak. So if that’s your situation, it’s probably simplest to base your unemployment claim on that.

* As always, individual states may have greater protections.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Lobbyista*

    Thanks for posting this question, Alison. With some states (like Colorado, and Georgia, I believe) turning their”stay home orders” into orders only for high risk individuals to stay home – while also opening non-essential business – I think this will be a confusing mess for a lot of people, unfortunately.

    1. hbc*

      What a lot of this is coming down to is “If your employer or your government tells you that you can’t work, you can collect unemployment.” We have restrictions in my county that are stronger than the state, and we’ve got someone taking the emergency unemployment on that basis, even though they could be working if our building was five miles down the road.

      So if Colorado is telling you to stay home because you’re at risk, then you get unemployment. At least, that’s what our lawyers are telling us.

    2. ZK*

      Colorado is a confusing mess especially because each county has its own rules for reopening. And the powers that be in my county seem to change their minds and policies from one minute to the other. Friday they said we could have have 24 people in the building starting May 2, then today they announced it’s only 10 people. Meanwhile, we’ve been running with well over 10 people all along, so NOW we have to reduce our workforce?!

  2. Master Bean Counter*

    The FFRCA act may apply to you:
    “A covered employer must provide to employees that it has employed for at least 30 days:[3]

    Up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay where an employee is unable to work due to a bona fide need for leave to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.”

    Check to see if your employer is covered. Chances are it is if they have over 50 employees.

      1. MsMaryMary*

        It doesn’t sound like it would help OP, but FFCRA also applies to governmental employers of any size

        1. Overeducated*

          Parts do. Some government employees are eligible for the FFCRA sick leave, but not the paid family leave.

    1. Mayflower*

      I just wanted to second this. I work in the senior care industry in Minnesota, and sadly what is happening in the Twin Cities is, the day a single coronavirus case is reported in any assisted living, nursing, or residential care home, care workers quit en masse, thanks to the rule above. It doesn’t have to be residents or staff either… it could be be a nurse or an electrician who visited once and has since been diagnosed.

      I can’t say that I blame the care workers – they are underpaid and can make more on unemployment once you take into account current $600/week “bonus”.

      1. Alice*

        I wonder how many are quitting because they can make more money and how many are quitting because they fear infecting others after being exposed through a lack of sufficient PPE….

        If you say, “they are underpaid and should be paid more all the time,” I would agree with you. But I’m not sure that raising salaries and leaving conditions the same would retain as many workers as are needed.

        1. Mayflower*

          Current guidance for congregate senior living settings (assisted livings, nursing homes, etc) is to separate staff and residents such that the infected population (whether confirmed or suspected) and designated care staff are physically and procedurally separated from non-infected population and care staff. It could be different wings or different floors, and if that’s not possible you transfer the infected resident to a hospital.

          With that in mind, the ideal scenario in my opinion would be tiered hazard pay and extra health benefits:

          1. If your facility does not have any active COVID-19 cases: regular hazard pay

          2. If your facility has active COVID-19 cases but you are working with the non-infected population: double hazard pay

          3. If you are working with the infected population: quadruple hazard pay

          4. Extra health benefits for all care workers: priority testing with early hospitalization if you test positive

  3. ACDC*

    My husband got laid off this morning, but they are claiming it is for “performance issues.” They have been talking about COVID layoffs for weeks, and never mentioned any performance issues. I think these dirt bags are trying to weasel their way out of paying unemployment. Sorry for the slightly off-topic rant, but you can imagine the many feelings happening over here.

    1. Super Anon*

      I believe, and hopefully someone can correct me if I’m wrong, that the only way he wouldn’t qualify for unemployment is if he was fired for cause. And usually that means something serious. Like embezzlement, harassment, etc.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Denials aren’t just for very serious things; in most states it’s also for anything that’s very black and white — absenteeism, rules violations, direct insubordination, etc. But they’ll usually give benefits for things like “your work just wasn’t up to par.”

        In any case, with something like this, I’d expect him to be able to get benefits.

    2. Liane*

      Most/all US allow you to collect UI if you’re fired for performance issues, or many other “with cause” reasons short of really egregious things like embezzlement, battered a coworker, etc. I don’t know if those states would pay the additional $600/week.

      1. Rachel in NYC*

        I would think they’d still qualify for the extra $600- I don’t think there was the fed gov’t put any caveat on it beyond the time period. Or rather- I don’t think people had to be laid-off during the relevant time period due to the pandemic.

  4. AJK*

    I’m not sure if it’s true in every state, but you can get unemployment if you are let go for performance issues, as long as the performance issues are the “you tried hard but you just couldn’t cut it” kind, not the “you punched your boss in the face” kind, which would be misconduct. You can’t collect if you are let go for misconduct, but I was let go once for what they called “performance issues” (I have a different opinion but most people do when they’re in that situation, I imagine) and I received unemployment. My mother went through the same thing during the 2009 recession – after nineteen years they said she had unspecified “performance issues.” (again, differing opinions…) She was able to collect unemployment also.

    1. ACDC*

      Well that is uplifting, thank you for sharing your experience. We are able to file tomorrow (our state is staggering filing dates by last name so that’s the reason for the delay). I know there is a lot of delays right now with getting any payments, but at least it’s something.

      1. Amy Sly*

        Yeah … my husband filled for unemployment March 25th in NC. We still haven’t received a penny.

  5. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    One thing I’d like to point about covid19 deaths and preexisting condition. The preexisting conditions that cause someone to be high risk for coronavirus complications are as follows (conditions from CDC coronavirus website, percentages from Google searches):

    Age 65 or older: 17% of Americans
    Chronic lung disease: 13.4% of Americans
    Asthma: 7.7% of Americans
    Heart conditions: 48.5% of Americans
    Immunocompromised: 4%
    Obese: 40% of Americans, including 7.6% who are severely obese
    Diabetes: 10.5% of Americans
    Kidney Disease: 15% of Americans
    Liver Disease: less than 1%

    Now, of course, many people fall into multiple categories (say, someone who is obese with diabetes, or 68 years old with a heart condition) but in general, close to 50% of Americans have at least one preexisting condition that makes them high risk for COVID19. Which is why all of this “open up and let the vulnerable stay home” makes no sense. Half the country is vulnerable!

    1. MayLou*

      And that’s just half the country who know they’re vulnerable. Many people discover they have heart problems by… having a heart problem.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        True. Many “unknown” preexisting conditions are being found when COVID rears its ugly head.

      2. Quill*

        Many people with autoimmune issues stumble into their diagnosis when something else goes on too…

  6. LGC*

    From what I’ve experienced, my employer allowed people to take a voluntary furlough if they had documented health issues. (Like, if they’re a cancer survivor.) So that might be a possible avenue? That might be your first plan of attack if you have a decently reasonable employer.

    On the other hand, as someone who is also “more effective” in the office (mostly because I can do production work in the office and I can’t from home), they might not go for that. It was a fight for me to get WFH with my job – although I’m healthy and live by myself, I was actually a higher risk to my employees if I came in regularly, since my area had higher transmission rates than where my office is.

    1. Marny*

      Voluntary furlough wouldn’t make you eligible for unemployment benefits unless you have the medical documentation Alison describes in her answer. It sounds like the LW is concerned about being able to get paid, not just getting to stay home.

  7. SaffyTaffy*

    Tangential but worth mentioning: I filled out an unemployment form “quit due to suicide attempt,” which was true, and got unemployment payments.

    1. Lyudie*

      If the job was impacting your mental health to that degree, I’d say that’s a valid reason!

      (I’m glad you’re still here)

  8. UI in WA*

    It really, really depends on your state and how they are interpreting “quit for good cause.” In my state (WA), the Governor issued a proclamation protecting workers who feel they cannot work in-person due to being in a high risk category which allows employees to receive UI.

    Even without the proclamation, we’ve started seeing some people receive UI benefits on the grounds that decision to quit was for good cause if your life or the life of a member of your household was at risk due to COVID-19 . There are procedural hurdles to clear if you’re trying to stop working for this reason (i.e., you should seek leave first) but it is a potential option at least in WA.* This may or may not be the same in Colorado –there may be specific UI resources there that can directly address the situation on the ground there.

    My point is only that this advice is not universally true and the facts on the ground are changing very, very rapidly.

    *The Unemployment Law Project in WA is currently recommending that people who cannot work on-site due to high risk of COVID-19 tell their employer that they are willing to work remotely, but cannot work on-site until conditions change rather than outright quitting. The ULP has also been filming webinars on COVID-19, which are available here: This advice is obviously most directly relevant to folks living in WA state, but there may be some useful advice for people in other states.

  9. I was never given a name*

    I wonder if you could frame this as constructive dismissal—the requirements of the job changed such that you’re no longer able to perform your previous role.

  10. Eleanor and Chidi's Love Child*

    OP, check your state’s website to see what their eligibility rules are in this pandemic. I’m in Michigan. I am a cancer survivor with an impaired immune system. For the last three winters, I’ve been very suspectible to colds, infections, pneumonia, and viruses. So five weeks ago, as the first Coronavirus/COVID-19 cases were discovered in Michigan, I took leave from my grocery store job. (I also asked my oncologist for a note describing my medical condition, and I gave a copy to my employer.) As I started my leave, my store’s HR representative told me I wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment because I voluntarily asked to leave. They were wrong. Because I am self-isolating due to being at high risk for COVID-19, I am eligible for unemployment.

  11. anon for this*

    It’s also not cut and dried even in non-coronavirus-related claims. I know a woman who basically walked off her job, filed for unemployment, and when she was turned down went through the appeals process and demonstrated that her mental health had deteriorated due to the hostility of her workplace, and she collected.

  12. Tam*

    If you’re in the UK you can get the 80% furlough salary if you’re shielding or on long term sick leave.

  13. AGroceryEmployee*

    I’m in this boat as well but I’m not sure if I’m covered in my state (Nevada.) I have asthma and work at a grocery store. Right now my employer is allowing us to take unpaid time off but there is only so long I can go unpaid, and I’m not sure if they won’t fire some of us in the end.

  14. ACM*

    This is exactly why governments need to be cautious in re-opening. The problem with an “openish-for-“healthy”-people policy” is that it places all the risk burden on the individuals who can’t, for whatever reason, risk either catching or bringing Covid-19 home. Keeping things closed until the risk really has subsided levels the playing ground (in a pretty dramatic, scorched earth kind of way economically, but one that spreads that risk/damage among everyone, not just those who are vulnerable for reasons beyond their control).

  15. Moxie*

    I’m not sure what other’s experiences are, but I have three of the major risk factors in contracting Covid. My doctor said she is providing letters saying that a person is at greater risk, but she will not advise employers that any of her patients must stay home/can’t work in the office due to risk.

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