Texas unemployment rate rises to 8.1% in November

Hundreds of cars lined up in the parking lot of Lehman High School in Kyle to receive food from the Central Texas Food Bank in November. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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The unemployment rate in Texas rose to 8.1% in November, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday. That’s an increase from the state’s October rate of 6.9% as Texas, whose businesses have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic, experienced another surge in infections. But the news also comes as the state begins distributing coronavirus vaccines.

The state's unemployment rate for November is the latest indicator that the economic recovery in Texas will be slow and staggered. And it’s a crucial data point for the Legislature, which will convene in January to tackle projected shortfalls to the state budget, a response to the pandemic and other meaty issues, such as redrawing the state’s political maps.

Distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine could impact the unemployment rate in the coming months — though, as Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday, officials expect it to take months before the vaccine is available to anyone who wants it. Leaders say that Texans should still limit indoor activities, practice social distancing and wear masks in the coming months, which could continue to impact businesses and employment.

This week, almost a quarter-million doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived at hospitals and health care facilities around the state. And a million more doses from Pfizer and Moderna are expected to arrive soon, Abbott said during a news conference in Austin.

Those distributions have come as Texas has again grappled with a surge in coronavirus cases across the state, with places like El Paso being hit particularly hard by the virus. As some local officials have called for the state to issue additional shutdown orders, such as the ones Abbott issued earlier this year in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the governor has ruled out such a possibility, emphasizing that the state needs to focus on reopening businesses.

But so far, the state has not seen as strong of an economic rebound as some had hoped. While unemployment rates improved over the summer, that figure rose to 8.3% in September. Companies that had hoped to avoid laying off employees had to do so in October, such as Chevron and Pioneer Natural Resources, which laid off at least 1,000 Texas workers combined.

Friday’s announcement also comes as Congress again wrestles with negotiations on a second round of federal relief — a follow up to a massive package passed at the beginning of the pandemic to help people and businesses through the summer. Congress continued debating more relief this week, but those negotiations could continue into the weekend, according to The Washington Post.

If Congress does not act, hundreds of thousands of Texans could lose unemployment relief at the end of the year, including more than 315,000 gig workers and independent contractors, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

On top of that, a federal eviction moratorium will expire at the end of the year,, prompting concerns among some that many Texans will struggle even more with food and rent.