If you’re one of the 313,832 Texans who filed an unemployment insurance claim this week—or maybe one of the 276,185 who applied last week—chances are you have some questions, concerns, stresses … you name it. Even if you’re fully employed (honestly, congrats to you!), you probably could use a refresher on what your rights, benefits, and expectations should be during this time of increasing uncertainty. 

But take heart. You’re not alone. Even Larry Stuart, a practicing board-certified labor-and-employment lawyer with Stuart PC and adjunct professor in management Rice University’s Jones School of Business, admits it can be perplexing. “There’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of change and there’s a lot of stuff in flux,” he says. “People are understandably confused.”

Stuart shared with us his expertise on unemployment and what workers should know right now.  

How should Texans file for unemployment benefits?

The Texas Workforce Commission, which administers the federal unemployment benefits in Texas, has published a bunch of instructions on their website on how to apply for benefits. They are trying to get everyone to apply electronically* because the volume of applicants is so high, they don’t have manpower to actually be able to process all of these manually. Changes have been made to have a complete digital intake system. 

*Due to high traffic, the TWC is recommending that claimants visit their website between the hours of 10 p.m.–6 a.m. for best results. The TWC call center will be open 7 a.m.–7 p.m. starting April 10, and beginning Monday, April 13, the commission will be open to callers seven days a week. The phone number is 800-939-6631. 

Has anything changed about unemployment benefits amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

There are a couple of things that are different now as a result of the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19 applicants had to wait a week before they could be eligible for benefits. That one-week waiting period has now been waived. 

Traditionally, with unemployment benefits you had to engage in active job search activities and log that information weekly and provide it to the TWC. They have suspended that work-search requirement for claimants, recognizing that there aren’t going to be a lot of open jobs. Although you should know that the Texas Workforce Commission is currently hiring. They’re looking for people particularly in San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, and McAllen. 

What benefits can claimants expect to receive?

The new statutes have extended what was a 26-week unemployment eligibility period to 39 weeks. They added another 13 weeks to the unemployment benefits period. And they also increased the maximum amount of benefits per week by another $600. The maximum previously was in the $600s. So, someone making $50,000 a year would almost be making that much on unemployment, roughly. That’s covering some higher compensated people who would have been underfunded previously. 

How does this relate to the federal stimulus money everyone’s talking about? 

[The different programs] are all individual buckets that are all trying to accomplish the same thing, which is to prop up the economy and keep people from going bankrupt.

[The state unemployment insurance] program is independent from the program where they are supposed to issue individual checks to taxpayers—about $1250 per person or $2500 per couple depending on your income levelThat is coming through the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Treasury and is independent from unemployment. 

Who can collect these benefits and how?

Even people who are still working are likely going to get those payments, and unemployed people should also get those payments even though they are also collecting unemployment benefits. Even people who didn’t have a job before but had income in 2018 or 2019 will get some sort of payment from the government, from what I understand. 

My understanding is that the federal government was going to do this automatically to the extent that there was a bank account in connection to someone’s 2018 returns. They were talking about directly depositing money into people’s accounts. If they don’t have that information, then they may be issuing live checks that go to the last address on people’s last returns. I don’t believe that people have to specifically request those [checks]. 

Is my company/employer also getting stimulus funds?

What’s happening is that the federal government—through the CARES Act, which passed last week—is loaning $300 billion to small businesses under 500 employees to help them fund payroll so they don’t have to terminate people and lay them off or furlough them. The loans through the Payroll Protection Program are forgivable loans. That means if you use those loans for things like payroll, rent, possibly employee benefits, then the federal government is going to forgive that part of the loan used for those purposes during this particular time period. It’s basically free money to those businesses. They are trying to cover it on both sides to try to maintain the equivalent economic impact of full employment. That’s the goal. 

What’s the status of sick leave these days?

There was no federally mandated paid sick leave in the private sector before last Wednesday (April 1). That statute now requires employers with less than 500 employees, not just massive companies, to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave benefits for one of six different reasons. Those six reasons include having to stay home because children are out of school, caregivers are unavailable due to the public health crisis, because of a family member who is suffering from COVID-19 needs assistance, or because of concerns about exposure to COVID-19, and avoiding contact per doctor's recommendations. [You also get paid leave if you're sick with COVID-19 symptoms]. Those six categories basically get people paid sick leave for 80 hours at their regular rate of pay, but it’s capped depending on the reason for their leave. 

*For more info, Stuart recommends checking out page three of this document. 

And what about the Family Medical Leave Act?

Paid FMLA is giving people 12 weeks of job-protected leave of absence if their child is out of school or childcare is unavailable due to COVID-19. Ten of those 12 weeks are paid but not at full rates. They are capped at $200 a day or two-thirds of their regular rate of pay, whichever is lower. This will be in effect until the end of this year unless it’s extended. 

*For more info, Stuart recommends checking out page two of this document. 

What can Texans do to be proactive about their employment status?

People should be making sure that they are registered for unemployment benefits with the TWC and checking their email and their updates online from the TWC regularly to make sure they are current and are getting processed appropriately. They should be trying to work with their employers if they have been furloughed or laid off to be reinstated to active employment as soon as they can. I think there may be some people who collect unemployment benefits and are sufficiently afraid of COVID-19 who may be hesitant to go back to work, but long-term that’s not a good financial choice. At one point this is going to run out. 

If there are jobs out there and people are eager to be re-employed they should start thinking about how they are going to do that. The longer people sit still and don’t seek any action for employment, the harder it is going to be to do that later on. 

Any other advice?

This is sort of a perfect storm of bad factors hitting Texas all at the same time. To some degree, there are going to be some employers that are going to treat their employees better than others. But employees also need to think about doing their best to be of value to their companies to help them be successful. It’s not in anyone’s interest for lots of companies to go out of business or into bankruptcy. This is going to require everybody to try to work together to successfully exit out of what could be a very difficult economic climate for some extended period of time. It’s not productive for everyone to be angry. It’s going to require some teamwork. 

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