Texas relaxes guidelines to allow unemployment benefits for workers who don't or can't return to work during pandemic

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The Texas Workforce Commission building in Austin. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

State officials are expanding which out-of-work Texans can receive unemployment even after refusing to return to work during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott's office.

Texans who are at high risk or live with high-risk people — such as people older than 65 and those who are immunocompromised — can still receive unemployment benefits. Those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are in a 14-day quarantine or live in a household with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus can also continue receiving benefits.

And people who don’t have access to child care because schools and day cares are closed to everyone but the children of essential workers can also receive benefits.

Any other situation will be subject to a case by case review by TWC [Texas Workforce Commission] based on individual circumstances,” a Thursday release said.

The relaxed guidelines come on the eve of businesses and restaurants reopening Friday, the first phase of Abbott's plan to reopen the economy.

On Monday, The Tribune reported that workers who refuse to return to work out of fear of risking exposure to the virus forfeit their right to unemployment benefits. Commission spokesman Cisco Gamez emailed late Tuesday that they were working on updating guidelines for what constitutes “good cause” to refuse to return to work, which would allow some people to still be eligible for benefits.

Abhi Rahman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said in an email Thursday the delay in releasing guidelines reflects “Abbott’s lack of planning and foresight.”

“Abbott's overlooking of the elderly who can no longer seek unemployment benefits was yet another example of how he's utterly mismanaged the crisis and botched the gradual reopening of Texas businesses,” Rahman said. “If the decision to open the state prematurely wasn't bad enough, Abbott proved again that he really had no plan.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This doesn’t mean anyone can refuse to go back to work and still receive unemployment. Earlier Thursday at a webinar, the Texas Workforce Commission advised employers to report employees who say they won't return to work because they can earn more money from unemployment benefits.

“You can’t force them to come back,” Velissa Chapa, legal counsel to the commissioner representing employers, said at the webinar. “But if an employee had already filed for unemployment, they may be denied benefits if they deny suitable work.”

"Suitable work" must be within the realm of the worker’s training and experience and doesn’t include work that can be proven as unsafe, said Tommy Simmons, who also provides legal counsel to a workforce commissioner.

While the relaxed guidelines from Abbott’s office are “worthy ones,” El Sills, spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO, said that the exceptions fall short in protecting workers with concerns about workplace safety.

Texas Workforce Commission spokesman Cisco Gamez told The Tribune Friday that workers with concerns about safety should file a report with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But OSHA is “chronically underfunded,” Sills said.

“Leaving it to OSHA is disingenuous,” Sills said. “Without an infectious disease standard, we believe employees should be able to turn to some sort of objective criteria for safety.”