WINCHESTER — As businesses begin to reopen and previously furloughed and laid off employees start to make their way back to work, the Virginia Employment Commission is urging employers and workers to be honest when it comes to claiming benefits.

Leading off a webinar on employment challenges provided by the Lord Fairfax Small Business Development Center and Virginia Community Capital on Thursday, Phyllis Conner, manager with the VEC, spoke to business owners about the process of handling employees who turn down offers to work as well as those who return after collecting unemployment insurance benefits.

Conner said the VEC launched a link on its website on May 14 that allows businesses to report job refusals and provides three separate scenarios to follow.

The three scenarios include: attempting to recall an employee but they refuse the offer; using Payroll Protection Plan monies to pay someone who is collecting unemployment; recently rehiring or hiring someone.

“Our responsibility is to ensure that we aren’t paying anybody funds or benefits that should not be receiving benefits,” Conner said. “So much is happening so quickly, and we do need your help to ensure the integrity of our trust fund and the federal funds we are distributing to individuals.”

There are individuals who have claimed they “make more on unemployment” and have refused offers to return to work. Virginia’s unemployment checks run between $60 and $378 a week depending on how much the person earned before they lost their job. In most cases, the federal CARES Act adds $600 a week.

The VEC has said, however, if you refuse employment — and the employer reports the refusal — you likely won’t receive unemployment benefits. There are some instances where that won’t be the case, Conner said.

Once a refusal is noted, an adjudication process takes place, where the individual can make its case to the VEC. If the VEC feels it necessary, funds can still be granted.

One business owner asked Conner if they should implement written work offers, but she said the best route to take would be to have an actual conversation and then to mail a letter and to document all of it to the VEC.

Both employers and employees are responsible for notifying the VEC that a job offer has been turned down, but it primarily falls on the individual making the unemployment claims, Conner said.

“We ask them the question for every claim: were you offered work and did you refuse to accept the offer of work?” she said. “Any time a claimant fails to appropriately respond to the question and we do an investigation and we find out that they received an offer (of work) and were not truthful to us, there is the opportunity for us to (press charges). I don’t know if the agency has ever in their history pursued that, but it is out there.”

Conner said failing to appropriately respond to the VEC is classified as a misdemeanor.

Conner said the VEC has gotten some calls, though, from folks who have received money from “two different pots” and have asked what to do with the funds and how to return them.

Conner said the VEC is still working on multiple phases of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as well as the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to continue to help those who qualify.

She noted that there are still people waiting to receive payment, but that all claims that are approved will be paid, even after the individual returns to work.

“Any week that they’ve not received, already claimed and met the eligibility criteria for, whenever we stand up these phases of the programs, they will receive those benefits,” she said. “We just encourage everyone that once you return to work to stop claiming.”

One question was from a business owner who continues to work but hasn’t been collecting a salary — which technically doesn’t qualify her for unemployment.

Conner said situations like that likely won’t be accepted through an online application, so she encouraged others facing the same trouble to call and speak with the VEC’s customer contact center at 1-866-832-2363.

Conner said the VEC has teamed up with other organizations to speed up the process.

“We will have different individuals working with us to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our business community as well as our job seekers,” she said. “A lot of people are being permanently displaced during this COVID-19 crisis, so we want to ensure we have appropriate staff to serve that and return to work as quickly as possible.”

— Contact Matt Welch at mwelch@winchesterstar.com