AUSTIN — As some Texas workers return to work on Friday, labor advocates are calling on the Texas Workforce Commission to change its unemployment rules to continue giving benefits to high-risk workers who cannot return to work because they fear catching the coronavirus and to those caring for sick family members.
In a letter that will be delivered to the commission Wednesday, advocates say that the health and safety of the Texas workforce has to be a top priority as businesses begin to reopen. Some of the groups signing on to the letter include the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas AFL-CIO, Workers Defense Project Action Fund and United Ways of Texas.
The advocates urged the commission not to disqualify from eligibility workers who refuse to return to workplaces that do not have proper safety precautions to protect workers from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. They also asked for a change to the state’s labor code that would continue to extend benefits to workers who leave their job to care for family members who contracted COVID-19 or if a worker is forced to leave work because they have contracted the disease.
These temporary changes would expire six months after Gov. Greg Abbott’s state of disaster declaration, which he made official on March 13.
Currently, workers must be available and willing to work all the days and hours required for the type of work they are seeking in order to remain eligible for unemployment benefits.
“If the business is eligible to open and meets state (Texas Department of State and Health Services) and federal (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for safety, the employee would not be eligible to receive unemployment benefits if they refused to return to work,” Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission said Monday.
Currently, if a worker denies an offer of “suitable work,” they are removed from unemployment rolls. The labor advocates asked that “risk to an individual’s health” be considered when the commission determined whether a worker was offered “suitable work.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people over 65 years old and those with underlying medical illnesses are at higher risk of contracting the virus.
The advocates said a person’s prior or current health conditions, such as age or other risk factors that may compromise their immune system’s ability to fight off disease, should be considered when determining whether they were offered suitable work. The commission should also consider a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19 and the availability of proper facilities, equipment, training and supplies needed to prevent the disease, the advocates said.
All those reasons should be classified as “good cause” for leaving a job, which would maintain a person’s eligibility for unemployment, they said. Leaving a job to self-quarantine or seek treatment for COVID-19 and leaving a job to care for family members who contracted the disease should also fall under “good cause.”
The advocates said current law is unclear on whether workers who leave work because of COVID-19 related issues are eligible for unemployment. They said the commission could clarify the issue for the public and that these workers should not be denied unemployment.
Abbott’s Monday announcement allowing for the opening of malls, retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants at 25% capacity has stirred confusion among the public. Some office workers, for example, are being told to prepare to return to work on Monday.
“The current plan does not encompass that,” John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman said Tuesday. “It continues to allow essential services to operate, but strongly encourages teleworking where possible.”
Single-person offices, where only one individual provides a service, are allowed to open if they follow the health requirements provided by the governor, Wittman said.
The advocates are pushing the commission to give leeway for workers who feel their work places are unsafe to continue receiving unemployment benefits.
On Tuesday, workers at a meat plant in Tuesday said their company refused to close despite a COVID-19 outbreak. At a news conference, a community activist representing the workers at Quality Sausage Co. said two people had died and several others were infected while working at the plant.
A spokesman for the company said the plant will remain closed pending a review of procedures to protect the health and safety of employees, and that it has adopted safety procedures.
Dallas County is investigating the positive COVID-19 cases at the plant.
Mara Cohara, a tort litigation attorney at Lathrop GPM, said companies who call their employees back to work should follow the guidance of local, state and national officials in order to minimize their liability. They should also have a plan for how to prevent the potential spread of the disease — providing masks and personal protective equipment if possible — and a strategy for reporting if an outbreak occurs.
Cohara said employers should make sure that their places of work are ready for workers to return and have been properly cleaned and sanitized. They should also consider whether employees can maintain social distance guidelines and look at whether staggered shifts could be beneficial.
“Limiting office capacity will be key as we head back,” she said.
Still, she said, some employees will be fearful to return to work and companies should continue to offer telework opportunities if they have the capacity.