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How opening businesses again will impact your unemployment | Q&A with Texas Workforce Commission

Should you go back to work if you fear getting sick? Here are 17 questions we asked the man in charge of Texas unemployment benefits.

AUSTIN, Texas — After Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced a phase-by-phase plan to begin reopening the Texas economy, we decided to check back in with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to answer more of your questions.

For our last Q&A session, click here.

Ed Serna, TWC Executive Director: "There are a couple of things I think I touched on the last time we talked, and we've been trying to get a message out...

CARES act was signed right at the end of March. It extended benefits for individuals who had already been on unemployment insurance. So, if your benefits expired or are getting ready to expire, the CARES Act added another 13 weeks. Plus, it adds $600 on top of your benefit.

You don't need to call us to trigger anything or do anything. We're going to be reaching out to you. We've already started sending messages out. We will either reach out to you through email if you gave us an email or through paper correspondence, if that's how you chose to be communicated with, to tell you what you need to do to get those benefits extended. You don't need to be trying to call that crowded call center to trigger anything at all. We're going to reach out to you.

And, we're beginning to get more concerned about fraud activity with people fraudulently calling some of these individuals, claiming that they work for us, getting information from them. They can have all their identity information that they need to duplicate and triplicate their identity."

Proffer: Will someone lose their unemployment if they're offered their job back, but they say no because they're afraid of the COVID-19 situation?

Serna: "We're not going to just cut somebody off because they didn't go back to work. We're going to evaluate each of those situations on a case-by-case basis.

It doesn't make sense to us in this very unique time to not have unique actions to address someone being concerned about going back to work or not being able to go back to work. They could actually be quarantined. They could be caring for an individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or they could be caring for children and the day care is not open. So, there are a lot of valid reasons where we would not automatically end benefits."

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Proffer: So, as far as those benefits go, they'll still receive it while you investigate? Will they have to pay it back?

Serna: "No, they do not. The only time that they have to pay something back is if they go back to work and they do not report any income to us. So, I would urge all your viewers that if you go back to work part-time or even just a little bit of time and you earn a little bit of income when you file your continued claim – every two weeks you file with us to continue your payments – just report your income. That's all you have to do. I can't emphasize that enough.

If you don't go back to work, and we investigate and find that you should go back to work, you don't have to pay that back to us."

Proffer: For people who are 65 and older, the governor said "stay home if you can." Are they required to go back to work?

Serna: "That's another group that we would not require them. So high at-risk groups, we're going to categorize it as 'high risk,' not just the age category. They're individuals with respiratory problems, other health problems that would be in that high risk. If you go to the, I think the Department of State Health Services website, they have a description of high-risk individuals who would be in a high-risk category. We're not going to cut their benefits off because they can't go back to work because they're in that category at this time.

Proffer: So, even if the employer decides to let them go in and replace them, they would still get that unemployment benefit?

Serna: "Absolutely. Hopefully, the employers will understand. I know that they need to get people on board to help them get going again. We completely understand that, but we think a lot of employers want to get their employees back and understand these circumstances.

Now, I can't speak for employers, but those individuals would not lose their benefits from us because they're unable to go back to work."

Proffer: What if you're a healthy person who's not in the high-risk category? And then you also say, "I don't want to go back to work because I'm going to be in front of the public, and I don't want to catch COVID-19?"

Serna: "Well, I think that the way that the governors roll this out has included a lot of safety standards, a lot of health standards for employers to follow guidelines based on the Department of State Health Services. If an individual is concerned about that, then that's one of the items where we'll look at that on a case-by-case basis. It could be that there's an issue with the environment that they're going back into. So, I can't say right off the bat that, 'Yes, that individual would continue to be qualified,' or, 'No, they would not.' We'd have to look at that on a case-by-case basis. That's going to get a little bit, a whole lot 'grayer' if the individual is healthy and the environment that the employer is providing is a good, safe environment for the employees and the customers."

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Proffer: Would it be good for us to put out to our viewers, if you are healthy and if the employer is following all the guidelines, then you need to go to work. If they are not following the guidelines, you may have a case in order to stay on unemployment?

Serna: "Yes, I think that's probably the best kind of broad, broad statement regarding that. Absolutely."

Proffer: Or if you're a high-risk, even if the employer is following proper guidelines, you can consider staying home?

Serna: "Right. We're going to be posting some general guidelines. We've been considering this for some time now, working with the governor's office, our commission. We're going to be posting some high-level guidelines. 

The one thing that we're going to emphasize as we post these guidelines is that each case is looked at on an individual basis, but there are some high-risk – you were taking care of someone who's been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 or you have child care issues. Those are going to be a whole lot easier for us to investigate or determine than any of the other cases."

Proffer: So, now that we're opening back up the economy, are you going to start having the "work search" requirements or the "waiting period?" When will that take effect? 

Serna: "You know that that's down the road a little ways ... I mean, probably sometime in May. The governor just announced his plan for reopening the economy. Our commission is going to be following the governor's lead. Our commissioners are going to at some point in the future. They've already asked us to brief them on plans, long-term plans for how we, TWC, participates in restarting the economy … Right now, that's not something that's been reinstated. When we do, by the way, we'll provide a lot, a lot of notice to the individuals that are receiving benefits.

There'll be plenty of notice. Weeks will elapse before it actually gets kicked in from the time we first start providing that notice."

Proffer: And that'll come out through email? I'm assuming regular USPS mail?

Serna: "Yes, ma'am. It will come out through email, USPS mail, social media, on our website, through press releases, through other statements that our commissioners will be making.

RELATED: Unemployment Q&A with the Texas Workforce Commission

Proffer: When it comes to the call centers, I know you're now up to eight or so, it was a big priority for you guys to have Texas-based businesses. Are they still all Texas-based, or how's that working out?

Serna: "Yes, ma'am. The very first one, teleNetwork, is based in San Marcos. The last one, Trellis, is based in Round Rock. AT&T, of course, is headquartered up in Dallas. Accenture, though not headquartered here, the whole effort is driven by the Accenture team here in Texas. You know, Accenture is a large multinational corporation, but it's their Texas team that's driving and providing support through that call center. 

Erica Proffer: So, what about the other four? We're hearing now that there are eight call centers online.

Serna: "We have those four other call centers. We've always operated four call centers around the state. We have one in Fort Worth, San Antonio, McAllen and El Paso.

All eight call centers are online and up and running and taking calls. Our contract call centers are coming up to speed very nicely, handling more and more and more of the calls. We're seeing more claims processed on a daily basis because of their benefit.

We've tried another tactic, which is outbound calling. We have volunteers from the House and the Senate. We have volunteers from other state agencies. And we have a lot of people from TWC that we reassigned. I guess you could say 'volun-told,' but most of them volunteered as well. They're making outbound calls, helping individuals with their PIN/password reset, getting little bits of information that we need to perfect a claim, calling individuals about the 13-week extension to try to give them some information."

Click here for a map of TWC claims by ZIP code.

Proffer: So, what about if they have technical questions? These call centers are they able to handle the technicalities or do they refer over to someone else in the TWC call center?

Serna: "We have them up to speed so they can handle some level of technical questions, but we have a system set up that if the question gets too technical, they can immediately hand that caller over to one of our four internal call centers. Those individuals that are for internal call centers have a significant amount of experience."

Proffer: When it comes to the Title XII funding, should you need those advance payments, how will we be paying that back? Has there been any discussion on that? 

Serna: "We have not had a discussion on that, but we've always we've used that tool in the past during the Great Recession, other times where the trust fund, there's a ceiling and a floor on the trust fund and we fall below the floor. We've taken steps to make sure that it stays in that zone. So, we've started our discussions about an internal team led by the agency's deputy executive director to look at alternatives, and we'll be proposing to the commission. 

We've already put in our request for the Title XII Loans, so that when the trust fund does get close to zero, then that money will already be there. 

Nobody's benefits are going to be impacted. We're not going to run out of money. Nobody's benefits will have to be reduced or, no, we don't have to wait until we get funds again."

Proffer: If we're going back to opening back up businesses, will the commission offices be opening up or a Workforce Solution office? Are they going to open on Friday?

Serna: "They've been physically closed, but they've been working virtually. About a week or so ago, there was a virtual job fair hosted by our Workforce Solutions offices up there that hosted, that had over 1,700 individuals participating. They're providing training online. They're providing services to employers and to job seekers online there. They still have phone access."

Proffer: The physical location?

Serna: "That's going to be left up to the local individuals. In each of those particular areas, those are independently governed organizations that have their own boards. While they work with us, they're not under our direct control. If possible, the physical locations will be open.

We're going to be providing them guidelines for providing a safe environment, for opening up for both their employees and their customers as quickly as we can. Some of them may be open on Friday, some of which may take a little bit longer to get prepped up for that, but they're all still open [virtually] right now."

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Proffer: What about the Texas Workforce Commission? Are they going to be opening their person on Friday?

Serna: "Our offices are going be open on Friday. We will. We will probably not be fully staffed. And by that I mean we have a lot of staff working from home very successfully doing things. I've been in the office every day since this started.

But we will be opening our doors and having crews start coming back in if they need to be here to get their work done."

Proffer: Anything else? 

Serna: "You know, we have individuals that are hiring, companies that are hiring. We would encourage people who are at home, viewers, if you're interested, go to WorkInTexas.com. Get your resumé in there. If you're an employer, get your job posted there. We do have plenty of jobs posted there, but there are companies that are hiring right now. So, we would encourage people to look, to be able to find those opportunities as well, as well as going back to their employers as they start opening up."

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