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Co-Existing with COVID-19: Should I go back to work? Do I have to?

We have had a lot of comments about our unemployment benefits and COVID-19 blog. Now, as the country is trying to re-open and learn to live with COVID, cancer survivors and patients are asking, should I go back to work? Do I have to go back to work? Can I still collect unemployment if I don’t go back to work?

Can I continue to collect unemployment?

First things first, the ability to continue to collect unemployment is determined on a state by state basis. Even though the CARES act expanded eligibility, payments, length of time for unemployment claims, and provided extra income through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, unemployment claims and the rules about them are managed by each individual state. So, I cannot tell you that everyone who is a cancer patient/survivor or “at high risk” can continue on unemployment even as our country is opening up again. You have to contact the unemployment office in your state directly. And yes, I know this is a challenge too—as many offices are completely overwhelmed by the number of claims and working on old, outdated tech systems that are not user friendly.

When you do get someone to talk to you, be sure to get their name, direct number and ask if the call is being recorded. This helps you should trouble come up down the line—it’s better to say, “on June 19th I spoke to Suzy W. at 888-555-1212 and the call was recorded…She reviewed my information and said I could still continue to file.” This is much stronger than “I called in June and talked to someone who said I was fine.”

Should I go back to work?

This is such a hard question. You need to take a hard look at your risk ON the job, your company’s ability to provide safe working conditions (including PPE), and your potential alternatives. This decision is also impacted by how far out from treatment you are. A person five years out of treatment for cancer is likely less at risk then someone 5 months out of treatment. If you are a caregiver of an “at risk” individual this is also important to think about. Talk to your healthcare team about your concerns and your risk too.

What should I think about when assessing my risk at work?

Under rules put into place by the Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor, your employer is required to make sure your workplace is a safe environment. You have to ask questions to understand your potential risk at work. For example:

  • Can you close a door or is the workspace wide open? 
    • What kind of protections/barriers has your employer put in place to separate employees? 
    • How can you social distance from others in your workspace?
    • Are they screening employees when they come to work (temperature screenings)? 
    • Are they supplying PPE, hand sanitizer, and frequent opportunities to wash hands? 
    • Are they requiring face coverings/masks? 
    • How many other people will you come into contact with every day?
    • Are the number of employees on-site at any given time being limited?
    • Are work schedules being staggered to support fewer people in any one space at a time?
    • What is the company’s plan for testing/contact tracing should an employee have COVID-19?

What are my other options?

  • If you are concerned about your risk status and your employer’s ability to provide a safer working environment, you could ask for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
  • Reasonable accommodations could include telework, private office space, or flexible work hours. It could also include things like installing barriers to keep you safe in the workspace.
  • Remember, if your employer offers you telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation you cannot receive unemployment benefits. 
  • However, your employer is not required to provide these accommodations if they cause hardship for them.
  • In order to ask for an accommodation, you need to disclose your “disability” – in this case, cancer – to your employer. This can be challenging if you have decided not to disclose your cancer diagnosis to your employer up to this point. It is unclear if “immunocompromised” will stand as a disability at this time under the ADA.
  • Caregivers are NOT eligible to request a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. However, it doesn’t hurt to ask your employer to work with you.
  • You can learn more about the ADA and reasonable accommodations here and here.

I don’t want to go back because of my immunocompromised status. What can I do?

  • Here is what we know from the Department of Labor: “you are likely to be eligible for PUA…if you have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine as a result of…health concerns…” related to exposure to the coronavirus.
  • Talk to your provider about your concerns and ask if they will be supportive/document your risk so that you can maintain your unemployment benefits.

I’m a caregiver for an immunocompromised individual—do I have to go back to work?

  • We don’t know if caregivers will be supported in continuing their unemployment claims if they can return to their jobs – but it doesn’t hurt to ask. You will need to contact your state unemployment agency to have your individual case reviewed.

Be aware, that the additional $600 per week payments included in the CARES act ends on July 31st. It is possible this will be extended, but Congress has yet to act on any further bills that would provide additional financial relief to individuals related to the pandemic. The CARES act did extend unemployment eligibility to a maximum of 39 weeks between January 27 and December 31, 2020; but as of now, after July 31st, you would only receive your base weekly unemployment benefits.

Sailing these uncertain waters has certainly posed many challenges—and I think we are still very much at the beginning of this COVID related sea change. As we learn how to co-exist with this virus, we will need to be creative and flexible to keep ourselves and our families safe while addressing our financial, emotional, social and spiritual needs.


Christina is a clinical oncology social worker and the psychosocial content editor at OncoLink. Christina blogs about resources available to the cancer community, as well as general information about coping with cancer practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Christina is also an instructor at the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice and the Financial Navigation Specialist at the Cancer Support Community Helpline. In her spare time, she loves to knit and volunteer with her therapy dogs, Linus and Huckleberry. She also loves to travel, cook and is an avid Philly sports fan.

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