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Alex Lee Quoted In Article, “I’m a teacher and I can’t go back to the classroom. What are my options?”

August 18, 2020

As published in, August 18, 2020
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School districts across the state are weighing their reopening options after Gov. Phil Murphy said last week that schools can, in certain circumstances, go all remote.

But some districts that are planning for in-person options are facing staffing problems.


In normal times, people who leave jobs voluntarily or refuse work will not qualify for unemployment benefits.

But if you can show some reason or “good cause” as to why you should be considered an exception to the rules, said Alex Lee, an employment attorney with Einhorn Barbarito in Denville.

But under the CARES Act, it’s easier to qualify – as long as you’re not also getting paid leave. You can’t double-dip.

The expanded federal unemployment benefits, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), include coverage under specific coronavirus-related circumstances.

The Labor Department gives a list of reasons to qualify, including when “the work poses high degree of risk to health and safety health concerns” and also child care issues related to coronavirus.

It notes that decisions for these cases are “highly fact-specific and are determined on a case-by-case basis.”

A teacher would probably need medical documentation, including a diagnosis or self-quarantine recommendation from a physician, to present to a claims examiner, Lee said.

The Labor Department said benefit eligibility could include those with an “immune system [that] is compromised by virtue of a serious health condition.”


Teachers -or any worker- who have young children who will be participating in virtual learning also may qualify for benefits.

The Labor Department said you may be eligible if “you are the primary caregiver for care for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to COVID-19.”

But you’d probably have to prove you’ve exhausted all child care options, and if you have an older child, it may be harder to demonstrate a need to stay home, Lee said.

Educators also might have a harder time saying they can’t teach in-person classes because they live with or care for someone else who has pre-existing conditions.

“Those circumstances could be more problematic because while guidance provides support for caring for a member of the household who actually is diagnosed with COVID-19, it does not specifically extend so far as to (cover) care for another person who is only at risk,” Lee said.


If a teacher quits because they don’t believe it’s safe to be in a classroom and they don’t have an underlying health condition, they would probably have to prove the school is unsafe, Lee said.

Be sure to document everything because if someone wrongly gets benefits, they’re responsible to pay it back, even if it was because of a Labor Department error.

“Any documentation that shows that the circumstances or conditions that are preventing the teacher from working should be regularly updated to show that the circumstances are continuing throughout the time periods the teacher is unable to work,” Lee said.

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