AUSTIN, Texas —
The Texas Workforce Commission will not allow most people to quit work for fear of COVID-19 exposure.
Commissioners denied a petition to allow healthy, qualified workers the ability to collect unemployment if their job puts them at risk of catching the virus.
“We don't believe that anyone should have to choose between, you know, their health and safety of themselves and their families or a paycheck,” said Jonathan Lewis, economic opportunity policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
For now, someone currently receiving unemployment can refuse a job if they are in a COVID-19 high-risk category.
“As far as health concerns, the only reasons you can voluntarily quit is for the sake of your own health or the health of a minor child within your household,” said Lewis.
The Texas Workforce Commission’s website shows most people who quit their jobs do not receive unemployment benefits.
However, due to the pandemic, Congress established Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for workers who do not typically qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Some people choosing to leave employment due to being in the COVID-19 high-risk category may qualify for this assistance.
PUA also provides unemployment assistance for gig workers and those self-employed.
Department of Labor records show 184,302 receiving the benefit as of the week ending on May 30.
“Texas is having an issue with issuing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” said Lewis.
Lewis said people who should get it may not be receiving the money. He also pointed out the benefit amount is less than traditional unemployment.
“It's a significant amount. It's enough that a family would feel the difference in their income. We believe that if you are in a job where you are eligible for state unemployment insurance benefits, and normally you should be able to receive those benefits and get that higher benefit level during this pandemic,” said Lewis.
In April, the CPPP and several other organizations asked TWC for “clarification of suitable work and workplace safety,” and for them to “define good cause for voluntarily leaving work.”
Commissioners waited nearly two months before considering it in a public meeting.
“Workers still need to be able to care for their parents, adult children or their partners or others who they may have made caregiving duties for. They wanted clear guidelines as to who can quit a job over COVID-19 concerns,” Lewis told commissioners in the June 23 meeting.
“Although I share the concerns raised by the petitioners, I do not believe the rules as presented provide the best options for addressing the issues at hand. Instead, I prefer staff to initiate rule-making proceedings and develop modified rules in accordance with actions taken by the commission in the past months to address this emergency. Regarding suitable work, I would like staff to look to language the commission adopted recently on June 16, 2020, regarding suitable work due to the impact of COVID-19 in initiating rule-making proceedings. Through the formal rulemaking process, employers, claimants and other interested parties would have the opportunity to provide the commission with comments on these potential rules regarding good cause for voluntary leaving,” said Julian Alvarez III, the commissioner representing labor.
Chairman and Commissioner Representing the Public Bryan Daniel and Commissioner Representing Employers Aaron Demerson did not agree with Alvarez and voted against the emergency rule proposal.
“I don't think we need additional rulemaking. However, I'm not too far off of [Alvarez’s] position, which is my recommendation that the staff is going to be to continue to monitor the situation on a regular basis and allow this commission to move quickly should we need to take action to protect Texans from whatever the situation may be,” said Daniel.
“Texas Workforce Commission doesn't really see itself as a public health authority, but the policy decisions that they're making are directly impacting Texans’ public health and the spread of COVID-19,” said Lewis.
Daniel instructed TWC unemployment insurance staff to review actions taken by the commission in response to the unemployment surge.
“… be prepared at the next commission meeting to report to us on this issue, to affirm that our belief that all the protections are in place or indeed in place and to make any recommendations that they say may be necessary for future rulemaking,” said Daniel to TWC staffers.
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