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Jobless benefits possible for part-timers

You don’t have to be unemployed to collect unemployment.

If your employer reduced your hours or asked you to take unpaid furlough days, you could be eligible for partial unemployment benefits, and thanks to a recession that’s in its 16th month, observers say Nevada has a growing number of part-timers signing up for jobless payments.

It’s hard to pin down just how many unemployment-collecting Nevadans work at least a few hours a week, said Barbara Taylor, a senior business process analyst with the state’s Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation. State regulations don’t define what constitutes full-time work; they leave it up to employers to determine whether hours worked qualify as full-time employment. Plus, the state doesn’t compile benefit data based on whether recipients work, Taylor said. Nor do many unions or employment agencies count statistics that way.

But Taylor said it’s likely that a "fairly high percentage" of unemployment claimants put in some hours occasionally.

And Pilar Weiss of Culinary Local 226, which has 60,000 members working in local hotels and restaurants, said anecdotal evidence shows the scenario is "clearly more common" today, as workers inside area resorts have their hours cut to match slumping business.

Cornelius Eason, president of Las Vegas employment agency Priority Staffing USA, said he doesn’t track the benefits of people he places. But he sees growing ranks of workers who’ve had their hours cut, and who want part-time work to offset lost wages. He also sees a number of workers who fret that any work will interrupt unemployment benefits. It might make a difference, he said, if they knew they could work some hours and still take jobless benefits.

So here’s how a part-timer can determine what she could collect.

The department of employment starts with the maximum weekly benefit of $393. That’s the most anyone can collect, no matter how much she earned.

Now, say a worker accepted a $10-an-hour job at 20 hours a week. The worker would report $200 in weekly income. The employment department deducts 75 percent, or $150, of that amount from the $393 ceiling, leaving a weekly partial jobless benefit of $243.

To collect benefits, part-timers must go through the same procedures as the fully unemployed. They have to report gross earnings in the first four of the five previous quarters.

They’ll also have to prove that they’re looking for a new job each week they’re taking benefits, unless their employer set a definite rehire date within the next month.

Also, if a claimant hasn’t spent at least 16 weeks working for his current employer, the department of employment will notify his next-to-last employer and determine why he left that job. If he quit or was fired for cause there, he might be denied benefits, even if he was laid off from his most-recent post.

Taking part-time hours while collecting unemployment has advantages. For one thing, occasional work can extend the weeks a worker can receive benefits, Taylor said. Benefits cap out at $10,218 a year. That lasts 26 weeks if a worker collects the weekly maximum, but it’ll go longer for part-timers who take the prorated check.

Aside from stringing out benefits, working part-time could eventually give the downsized a crack at a full-time job, experts said, and it helps recipients understand unemployment checks aren’t handouts.

"Unemployment is insurance for individuals who are no longer working and it’s not their fault," Taylor said. "A lot of people are reluctant to take benefits because they think unemployment is a welfare program. But it’s really just insurance — a form of funds to assist them in getting back to work."

The system can help workers who post widely varying hours from week to week, a situation that’s increasingly common among Culinary members, Weiss said.

Before hotel-casinos began laying off thousands in 2008, a number of employees already relied mostly on "extra" boards for work, which means they picked up left-over, last-minute hours for conventions and other major functions that full-time employees couldn’t cover.

Once layoffs hit the Strip en masse, those employees moved even farther down the extra boards, Weiss said. And that’s where the Culinary is seeing a goodly number of members who work sporadically and claim partial unemployment. Once a worker initiates a claim, it’s relatively simple to open and close it weekly based on need, Taylor said.

It’s not just part-time workers who qualify for unemployment. Full-time workers taking periodic unpaid leave could also receive benefits, even if they volunteered for time off, Taylor said.

If a company’s owner said she’d have to force workers to take time off if she couldn’t find volunteers to participate in furloughs, and some workers stepped forward to participate willingly, those workers could make a reasonable claim that their time off was involuntary.

But workers who want partial benefits will need to stay honest: The department of employment will always check with business owners to verify employees’ accounts of their job status before it begins issuing checks.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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