HOUSTON - Workers who don't feel safe returning to work when all Texas businesses can reopen next week may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits. Many say they're concerned their workplace won't take enough steps to protect them from COVID-19.
Meantime, the federal government is also sending states $200 million to crack down on unemployment fraud.
"There's not a moment in time since last year I have had a good night's rest," said Nathern Brown.
Brown says his job in security at George Bush Intercontinental Airport was paused last year, but hasn't been able to collect any unemployment checks since applying in August.
"It looks like somebody stole your information," Brown says a Texas Workforce Commission employee told him. "Because she started bringing up other dates. And I was like no, this is my first time filing anything with unemployment."
Like many Texans, he's had trouble reaching TWC and getting his benefits straightened out.
Now many unemployed workers say they have a new worry. If they don't feel safe returning to work, can they still collect unemployment benefits?
TWC's James Bernsen says yes. First, applicants can qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance if they meet qualifications established last year.
"It's people who have a high risk of COVID-19, or they live with someone who is high risk. Or they have some extenuating circumstance that causes them to be high risk," explained Bernsen.
In addition, President Biden has expanded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to workers who make the case that their employers aren't providing sufficient protections from the virus.
"When it comes to someone who just doesn't feel safe, and says they can't get into agreement with their employer, they will be in most cases eligible for unemployment benefits," said Bernsen.
And it's retroactive. If workers applied for these benefits after Dec. 27, 2020 because the workplace was unsafe, they can receive payments going back to Dec. 6.
There is no date set yet for this benefit to expire.
"We have no timeline because we really don't have any level of certainty about the progress of the virus," said Bernsen.
However, OSHA is issuing new safety protocols workplaces must follow.
"If those standards, for example, include masking, then it won't be optional for employers. They specifically risk being fined by OSHA if they're not following those standards," said employment attorney David Barron with Cozen O'Connor.
Meantime, the Associated Press reports unemployment benefits fraud is growing nationwide as scammers use stolen identities they buy off the dark web to take out benefits, including in Texas.
"It's dramatically higher than in previous years. In 2019, we had 1200 cases. And this year, we've had 300,000," said Bernsen.
He says the TWC has used its fraud detection system to block 75% of those cases from being paid.
Brown says he wishes his case was one of them.
"All this money they're claiming under me, I could really use. The real Nathern Brown really could use in this current situation, in this current pandemic. It's fraudulently being taken away from me," said Brown.
We asked the TWC to look into Brown's case.