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Coronavirus & Hospitality: Questions and Answers with the Employment Security Department

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On March 20, 2020, the Washington Hospitality Association and the Washington State Employment Security Department held a joint webinar to answer members’ questions amid the coronavirus outbreak and the impact of the stay-at-home restrictions on their businesses.

General Information

Q: What languages are this is this website available in? We have people from communities around the world and backgrounds around the world that work in our industry. Is it available in Spanish and other languages?

A: eServices available in English and Spanish. If there is a language other than those two that you need to speak in order to file a claim, it’s best to talk to an agent on the phone and because we do have translators that actually work in our Claim Centers and if there is not someone who speaks that specific language we can get a translator on the phone.

Q: How do I reply to the request for employer information on the Employment Security Department website?

A: That is through the eServices portal for employers. If you had already signed up for eServices, then you can reply through the eServices portal. If you have not signed up for eServices and you received a paper notice, then you can respond by paper, by faxing it in or mailing it in. Or you can go open up any services account and respond that way. But until you have an eServices account, you can’t respond online.

Q: How can someone who has a Secure Access Washington (SAW) account and has become locked out get it unlocked?

A: Go through Secure Access Washington to do that. https://secureaccess.wa.gov/myAccess/saw/select.do

Q: Unemployment benefits, are those subject to federal income taxes?

 A: Yes

Q: How sustainable is this given that there’s as many as 80% of restaurant employees filing claims?

A: We do have one of the healthiest unemployment insurance trust funds in the entire nation. In the unlikely situation that we do run out of money, the U.S. Department of Labor does have bailout money ready for states that have to borrow money to continue to pay benefits.

How UI interacts with other benefits

Q: What happens with people who are collecting other forms of leave, sick or vacation?

A: Those folks would get those other benefits deducted from their unemployment benefits. You can’t get paid for both at the same time.  To get the most out of the UI system, employees should only apply after they have exhausted the other benefits that are available to them.

Q: Can I offer a health care to my UI eligible employees during or will that disqualify them for unemployment?

A: Health care doesn’t count as wages, so the health plan you pay to your employees does not count as wages on the tax side nor on the benefit side. This will not count against your employees. If I offer a severance package to help get them by, does this have a negative impact on their unemployment insurance eligibility?

Q: It should not be:  as long as it was paid for a period before they were separated and not applied specifically to any week that they are claiming benefits. If an employee who just went on maternity leave and is receiving for paid family leave, will they be eligible for unemployment when they come back?

A: If an employee has gone on maternity leave, they are potentially eligible for Paid Family and Medical Leave and Paid Family and Medical Leave is a higher dollar value benefit than unemployment insurance. It would probably be best for that particular employee to try to use up all of their Paid Family and Medical Leave first and then try to resort to unemployment insurance. If the baby is born and the employee is ready to re-enter the workforce, yet they can’t because this crisis is still going on, they can again access unemployment insurance.

Standby and Workshare

Q: What can employers do to make it so their team is more successful in the unemployment system? 

A: Standby is a program for individuals who are temporarily laid off with an anticipated return date. In emergency rulemaking, the department made standby available to full-time and part-time employees. So even If you have part-time employees, you can still put them on standby so that they can claim benefits that way. Now the difference between somebody who is on standby and somebody who is laid off and not expected to return to work is that somebody who is on standby does not have to conduct a work search in order to be available for claims. So this is a great opportunity for employers who want to hang on to their workforce. The only requirement is that they have to stay in reasonable contact with their employer in case something pops up

So folks who are filing their claim can ask for standby when they do it. We will be sending out forms to employers whenever anybody files a claim and part of that form within the first couple pages lets you know. Hey, do you want to put this person on standby, please fill that out and say “Yes I want this person on standby” and send it back to us.

Be assured that even if the employee received a standby denial letter because they were part-time workers, they will end up being eligible for standby.  It is a manual process that we must go through until we can get our computer system updated to the rapidly changing landscape that we’re working with right now.

  • SharedWork is the other tool that is an alternative that allows employers to do partial reductions in staff. So instead of laying [an employee] off completely, you can reduce their hours by 10 percent to 50 percent. Make them a half-time employee and then unemployment can step in and make up the difference for them. Instead of collecting a full unemployment, they can collect a 50 percent unemployment check to make up for the time that you laid them off for.

This is another great way to still keep employees that you value on staff. They do have to go to work if you are offering them jobs, but they don’t have to look for other work for other employers. So that’s another way that you can make life easier for your staff. And then also there you’re still keeping them gainfully employed to the extent you can so there’s an application process there for how to apply we are, so include that information.

One of the things you need to do with your SharedWork employees is you need to continue to pay them benefits, including any health plan or retirement plan that you have them on. The SharedWork option is employer-initiated. The employer has to fill out an application and get the application approved.

Q: If an employee has applied for the SharedWork program, is there anything additional the employee needs to do?

A: The employee needs to continue to report to work as assigned by the employer. They do not need to be able and available for other work. And in fact, one of the things that they can do on SharedWork is they can access training benefits and training programs while they are halftime or partially unemployed. Many employers during the last recession ended up putting their employees on SharedWork with training. When they came back, they got employees who had more training and more skills than before they went on SharedWork.

Q: Are we waiving the four-week limit for employee initial request for standby?

A: There are recent changes to expand access to unemployment – You can request standby status for up to 12 weeks.  https://esd.wa.gov/newsroom/covid-19

Q: Are there minimum hours employees must be reduced to in order to be eligible for SharedWork?

A: Employers are going to have to report earnings that employees earned during that week and those earnings will be deducted from their weekly benefit amount. So, if the amount they earn still is in excess of what they’re eligible for. It wouldn’t make any sense to put them on Sharedwork because they’re not going to be eligible for benefits anyway.

The other thing too is that we shared work for folks who are every reducing their hours of worked in order to get on shared work the ranges of reduction of 10% to 50%. So three hours is probably for somebody who’s working full time is not going to get you to that ten percent minimum, but if you get them if but if you do some by four hours, then you get to 10% at which point they can then access shared work.

Q: If an employee accidentally signs up for regular unemployment instead of standby, do we as employers just respond by requesting standby for them?

A: When the employee files their unemployment claim they don’t sign up for standby. As the employer you can sign them up for standby. But until they are approved for standby they must make the job search. It would be in everybody’s best interest to reply to the request for separation information as soon as possible.

Q: If an employee has applied for the shared work program, is there anything additional the employees need to do?

A: The employees need to continue to report to work as assigned by the employer. They do not need to be able and available for other work. And in fact, one of the things that they can do on shared work is they can actually access training benefits and training programs while they are halftime employed or partially unemployed. So as many employers during the last recession ended up putting a lot of their employees on shared work and when they came back, they got employees who had more training and more skills than before they went on shared work.

Denial Letters

Q: If employees have received an auto-denial letter on their unemployment application, when should they expect a follow-up to see if it will be overturned?

A: Within a week or so you should see an email or letter, if not, please follow up.

Q: If I applied and I got a denial letter, can I switch quickly to use some of my other options while I’m waiting to hear back from the Employment Security Department?

A: It would depend on the employer to decide which kind of pay the employee would like to be receiving. You have to watch the timing of it all because it could get deducted. You can decide in the middle of your unemployment that you want to take vacation pay or sick pay. Your unemployment claim is good for a year so you are more than welcome to go in and change the dates as many times as you need. You do not have to open a brand-new claim each time.

Q: A couple of employees who had worked full time for the past four years still got a denial letter saying that they had to work 680 hours. Is there any way they can jump the system to do that or do they have to wait for the letters to come?

A: The most important thing is when they get that denial (on standby only) they will also get a monetary eligibility letter that lists out all of the employment that was in their base year. The most important thing to do is verify that all of your employers show up on that letter because that’s what the claim is based on. It’s also based on the number of hours and the earnings that the employers during that time period reported. If the claimant happened to work outside of the state of Washington, that’s important to know too because hours of work performed outside of Washington in the last 18 months can be used to qualify for a claim. So it just depends on what’s on that monetary eligibility letter that they receive.

Q: Will an employee be denied if benefits were used up for the claim year, even if they meet the 680 threshold? Will they have to wait until the benefit year restarts?

A: If somebody already has an existing claim and they’ve exhausted all benefits available before the end of their claim year currently, there is no extension of benefits. A claim year is 12 months.

Q: If I’m an employee and I’ve just been told that I’ve been furloughed temporarily because the business is closed temporarily, what do I write down as my separation reason to qualify for standby?

A: Depends on the situation the employer is in. If the employer had to shut down business completely and had to lay off their staff – that would be laid off due to lack of work. Now if the employer is just reducing the number of hours available for staff, there is an option for full-time employees to have their hours reduced to no more no less than 16 hours a week and intend to bring them back to work within four. And if that option is selected, and the employee would not have to look for work. Don’t say fired unless the employee was actually fired and don’t say labor dispute or strike or lockout. We have had a number of people who said I was locked out because the employer was closed. that language delays benefits.

Q: My employee was denied employment benefits since the standby benefit changes. How do we go about appealing to make sure that they are covered?

A: That was a little bit different if somebody was denied standby because they are part-time employees and not full-time employees. We are going to be doing the redeterminations to send out the new standby approval letters for those who fall into that category. There may be other reasons that somebody was denied standby, but the ones for part-time are supposed to be taken care of and our website our unemployment system computer system is supposed to be updated with that so that it doesn’t automatically deny very soon.  Please follow up with the Department.

Employee eligibility for unemployment insurance

Q: What if an employee is worried about their green card or their legal status? Are there any barriers in the unemployment insurance system?

A: Yes. You must be legally authorized to work in the United States to be eligible for unemployment at the time you earned the wages that make up your unemployment claim and each week that you claim benefits. So if during any of those time periods you were not authorized to work you would not be eligible.

Q: What happens an employee’s legal status is in question – does that impact receiving unemployment insurance benefits? 

A: As part of the Employment Security Department application, the department asks for green card numbers or any kind of Visa that allows them to work in the United States, and we do verify with the Department of Homeland Security. We have to abide by the decision that Homeland Security sends us.

Q: What about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients or people who have work visas? Are they eligible for unemployment?

A: Yes, as long as they are legally authorized to work in this nation.