Texas AFT and 11 other organizations from across Texas came together to call on the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to strengthen our state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. Our joint letter to TWC requested that the agency address several concerns relating to UI through emergency rule amendments. Concerns included the clarification of suitable work and workplace safety and defining good cause for voluntarily leaving work.
Due to COVID-19, many Texans are facing economic and health risks as businesses are set to reopen. While the risk of infection has had no decline, keeping workers safe should be a top priority. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified groups at higher risk and also advised on workplace protections to reduce risk of exposure. The Texas Unemployment Compensation act requires UI recipients to accept offers of suitable work, meaning there is no risk to a worker’s health or safety. Additionally, under the Act, an individual is not deemed ineligible for UI benefits if they choose not to put themselves at risk in a workplace that is not suitable for work and puts their health and safety at risk.
On Thursday Governor Abbott announced that the TWC was issuing new guidance to unemployment claimants should they choose not to return to work due to COVID-19. Reasons to voluntarily leave or refuse employment covered under the new guidelines include the individual being diagnosed with COVID-19, having to care for a family or household member who was diagnosed with COVID-19, being in quarantine, child’s school or daycare closed and no alternatives are available, and being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, according to CDC guidelines.
Unemployment claims will continue to be evaluated on an individual basis, however Texans now have more assurance from the state that they will be able to receive unemployment benefits if they choose not to return to work for COVID-19 related reasons outlined by the TWC. While the Governor’s announcement was a welcomed response, the new TWC guidance doesn’t specify UI eligibility for employees who refuse to return to work because of an employer not providing a safe workplace and puts them at risk for contracting COVID-19. This is an oversight that could still leave some workers having to choose between a paycheck and their health as businesses try to find ways to comply with safety guidelines for reopening with little oversight.
Because COVID-19 has disrupted the income of millions of Texans, it is important to ensure that the eligibility of UI benefits is not affected due to workers protecting their health and safety.