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You asked, we got answers: COVID-19 and unemployment questions

There are still a lot of questions about unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. KVUE is working to get your questions answered.

AUSTIN, Texas — There are still a lot of questions when it comes to unemployment right now, so KVUE is working to make sure your questions get answered. Here is a list of questions you've sent to us or that we've found from people online, including answers from the Texas Workforce Commission

KVUE will keep this question-and-answer list updated. If you have questions, email Reporter Molly Oak at moak@kvue.com. She'll work to get your questions answered. 

Q: I've been trying to get through the unemployment website for two weeks diligently and can't get past the first page.

A: "We understand your frustration and want to get every Texan the help they need. We have made many changes to improve our system but right now face an unprecedented backlog of calls and ask for the public’s patience. TWC received 14 million calls last week (ending April 11) which is down from 15 million the week prior (ending April 4). On April 7, we received over 3.4 million calls in a 24-hour period. Prior to COVID-19, on an average day, TWC would receive around 13,000 calls. The record number of calls before COVID-19 was 60,000 in a 24 hour period.

TWC now has over 1,500 staff helping support unemployment insurance services and has upgraded and expanded telephone infrastructure and website capacity. The Texas Workforce Commission is actively hiring emergency hires and receiving volunteers from other TWC departments and external partners. Hardware upgrades have been made to TWC’s Benefits System, and TWC added two third-party call centers to help take claims. An artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot has been added to the TWC homepage to provide answers to UI questions and 24/7."

Q: Can an employer deny unemployment benefits during this time?

A: "The employer does not provide unemployment benefits. They pay taxes to the State of Texas, which administers the benefits and determines eligibility based on state and federal law."

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Q: The company I work for is a nonessential business but is in noncompliance by refusing to close. I am not going into work because I am following stay-at-home orders and do not want to get myself or my family sick with COVID-19. Am I still eligible for unemployment benefits?

A: "Quitting your job beforehand is not recommended. It is recommended that you first ask your employer for paid sick leave. Employees who voluntarily self-quarantine should be treated the same way that any other employee would be treated who reports absences due to medical conditions, i.e., apply the company's normal medical absence policy.

Employees who are told to stay home for such reasons would be able to use available paid medical leave under whatever paid leave policy the company has. If the company agrees to medical leave that is paid, this is preferable to unemployment. If they cannot do this and lay the employee off instead, then that employee would qualify for unemployment.

While on paid medical leave, they would not be considered 'unemployed' under TWC laws and would not be able to claim unemployment insurance (UI) benefits."

Q: Can I apply for partial unemployment if my salary or hours are reduced?

A: "If this is a decrease in hours, and applies to at least 10% of the company’s workforce, the employer could participate in the Shared Work program, which pays partial benefits. The Shared Work program allows employers to reduce normal weekly work hours for employees in an affected unit by at least 10% but not more than 40%; the reduction must affect at least 10% of the employees in that unit.

Shared Work allows employers to supplement their employees’ wages lost because of reduced work hours with partial unemployment benefits. Under the program, employers can reduce normal weekly work hours for employees in an affected unit by at least 10% but not more than 40%. Shared Work unemployment benefits are payable to employees who qualify for and participate in an approved Shared Work Plan. Workers may choose not to participate. Employees who qualify will receive both wages and Shared Work unemployment benefits."

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Q: If someone is self-employed, are they still eligible for unemployment? If so, did they verify your income?

A: "If you are self-employed, a contract worker or previously worked in a position that did not report wages, you may qualify for unemployment and can apply.

If you already applied, TWC will determine if you qualify under the new stimulus bill and notify you by mail or electronic correspondence of your eligibility.

If you have not filed, please go online to ui.texasworkforce.org and file or, if unable to file online, then call us at 1-800-939-6631 to start the process.

Typically, to receive unemployment benefits you must have enough past wages in the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters, have a qualifying job separation and meet ongoing requirements. These are not typical times and various temporary law changes can broaden the number of people who would typically qualify for benefits; therefore, if an individual has been working full-time regardless of whether the work was covered employment, self-employment, contract labor or commission-based, they should file a claim at ui.texasworkforce.org. If they already have a claim in our system, then we will reach out to them at the last address of record."

Q: Some say that the TWC has disabled its website and phones so that they can catch up. Is there any truth to that?

A: "This is not true. TWC has processed over 1 million unemployment insurance claims and authorized over $400 million in benefit payments. Staff are taking calls seven days a week, three new call centers have been opened in addition to the four we had in operation. We will soon have eight in operation."

Q: What about temporary workers? Can they file for unemployment? 

A: "If temporary workers meet the qualifications for regular unemployment insurance based on past wages, type of job separation and ongoing eligibility requirements."

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