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Worker Advocates Want Texas To Expand Unemployment Rules

A cyclist wears a bandana over his face as he travels past a boarded up business in downtown Austin.
Eric Gay
Associated Press
A cyclist wears a bandana over his face as he travels past a boarded up business in downtown Austin.

Friday begins Texas’ reopening.Gov. Greg Abbott announced restaurants, retail stores, malls, museums, libraries, and movie theatres in counties with more than five COVID-19 cases can operate at 25% capacity starting that day. Rural areas with five or fewer cases can open to 50% capacity.

This change means some workers face a return to work when they might not feel entirely safe to do so. And if they decide not to return, does that mean they are surrendering unemployment benefits? 

In some cases, no.One provision of the federal CARES Act gives people in some circumstances $600 a week even if they don’t otherwise qualify for unemployment in their states. 

Those circumstances include:

-being diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis; 

-having a household or family member who is diagnosed; 

-providing care for a household or family member with COVID-19; 

-being the primary caregiver for a child who cannot go to school because it is closed due to COVID-19;

-being advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.

Current rules in the state of Texas do not go as far. Guidance from the Texas Workforce Commission says you must show “good cause” in order to receive unemployment upon quitting a job.

Theexamples the commission provides of good cause are: not getting paid, major changes in a hiring agreement and “well-documented” unsafe working conditions.

Facing the partial reopening of some nonessential businesses, several worker advocacy organizations want the commission to be more specific in what would constitute “good cause” to receive state unemployment. 

Current rules are “not very explicit around the needs in this pandemic,” Jonathan Lewis said. He's a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The group co-signed a letter to the commission with the United Ways of Texas, labor unions, and other worker advocacy groups. 

One of the eight proposals would temporarily put into state rules unemployment payments for someone who left work to seek a diagnosis of COVID-19 because she had symptoms. Another would allow unemployment for people whose employers didn’t make supplies or training available to prevent infection. A third proposed rule would consider a worker who was at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 to have “good cause” for leaving employment.

The ideas lean onsafety guidelines for employers put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need to make sure that those folks know that those benefits are still gonna be available to them if they do not feel safe returning to work,” Lewis said.

Lewis said the commission has emergency powers to pass new unemployment rules on a temporary basis. The letter suggests amending state unemployment qualifications until at least September. 

A Texas Workforce Commission spokesman said in an email that the agency received the letter and staff is currently reviewing it.

"Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause, the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits," spokesman Cisco Gomez said. "Recognizing this extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration direction towards reopening the economy."

AARP Texas sent its own letter to the commission last week, as it was concerned workers over 50 would lose unemployment benefits if they had COVID-19, were caring for family with the disease or had been ordered into quarantine by a doctor.

A spokesman for AARP Texas said the commission suggested to them those groups of workers would be covered under the federal CARES Act. 

“We were pleased to hear from the commission that they are using the federal CARES Act to expand benefits to the Texans, including family caregivers, that we identified in our April 22 letter,” AARP Texas Director Tina Tran said in an emailed statement.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.