Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday announced new guidance to the Texas Workforce Commission that will allow some workers to stay home and continue receiving unemployment benefits even as their employers begin reopening businesses and recalling people to work.
“As the Lone Star State begins the process of safely and strategically opening the economy, our top priority is protecting the health and safety of all Texans — especially those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19,” Abbott said via a news release.
The new guidance continues some unemployment protections guaranteed by the CARES Act, which Congress passed on March 26, including maintaining eligibility for those unable to work because they have tested positive for COVID-19, live in the same household as someone who has tested positive and has not yet recovered, are currently in quarantine due to close contact exposure with someone who has tested positive, or for parents who have no suitable childcare alternatives due to pandemic-related school or daycare closures.
But the guidance also allows some people who fear returning to work because of the virus to maintain their eligibility and continue receiving unemployment benefits. That includes workers who are 65 years or older, whom data show are at higher risk of experiencing severe illness from the disease.
It also includes workers who live in the same household as a person who is 65 years or older.
“This flexibility in the unemployment benefit process will help ensure that Texans with certain health and safety concerns will not be penalized for choosing not to return to work,” Abbott said.
As the governor noted during a Monday news conference wherein he rolled out his plan to reopen the Texas economy in phases beginning Friday, people 65 years or older account for 75% of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities.
But it’s not just the elderly who are at higher risk of complications from the virus. People with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease can become severely ill and are at higher risk of death.
On April 4, officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services said more than half of positive cases in the Rio Grande Valley are young people between the ages of 20-49 — a worrying statistic, given the prevalence in the Valley of diabetes, obesity and other chronic health conditions that can exacerbate the severity of COVID-19 infection.
Abbott’s unemployment guidance comes just days after the governor faced criticism from some lawmakers and people fearful of reopening the economy too soon as cases continue to rise throughout the state.
In media appearances this week, the governor has reiterated that his phased plan to reopen the state — which he emphasized supersedes any attempts by counties or municipalities to institute stricter measures — does not obligate businesses to reopen their doors starting Friday, nor does it obligate people to leave their homes if they continue to feel unsafe.
However, the new unemployment guidance offers no recourse for younger workers with underlying conditions who receive notice that their place of work is reopening its doors.
Under the state’s unemployment insurance law, a person receiving benefits cannot refuse a reasonable offer of work. Nor will they remain eligible if they decide to quit their job due to the pandemic.
“They’re gonna have to abide by the rules,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said on Tuesday regarding out-of-work employees who find themselves called back to work. “If they don’t qualify for unemployment, then they don’t qualify for unemployment. That’s just a fact.”
“Those rules for qualifying for unemployment do not change,” he said.