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Abbott Announces Limited Exceptions to Unemployment Rules for Wary Employees Called to Work

Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in Texas and nationwide amid shutdowns related to the novel coronavirus.
Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in Texas and nationwide amid shutdowns related to the novel coronavirus.
Bytemarks / Flickr

Texas is going to offer a little grace to those who would've otherwise faced an impossible choice whenever their employer called them back to work amid the ongoing pandemic. And when we say a little, we mean very little.

Immediately following Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement Monday that he would allow retailers and restaurants to reopen Friday at 25% capacity, questions began flowing to the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees the state's unemployment insurance program.

"What about those who get called back to work but don't want to, or can't, return?"

Initially, the Workforce Commission told reporters that those who chose not to return to work would be ineligible for continued benefits, before saying that the agency was reevaluating its policies a day later.

Thursday, hours before the state's shelter-at-home orders loosened, Abbott's office released new guidelines.

“As the Lone Star State begins the process of safely and strategically opening the economy, our top priority is protecting the health and safety of all Texans — especially those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. "This flexibility in the unemployment benefit process will help ensure that Texans with certain health and safety concerns will not be penalized for choosing not to return to work.”

If your employer calls you back, you can refuse and still be eligible for unemployment if you find yourself in one of the following situations, as described by the governor's office.

  • At high risk: People 65 years or older are at a higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19.
  • Household member at high risk: People 65 years or older are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.
  • Diagnosed with COVID: The person has tested positive for COVID-19 by a source authorized by the state of Texas and is not recovered.
  • Family member with COVID: Anybody in the household has tested positive for COVID-19 by a source authorized by the state of Texas and is not recovered and 14 days have not yet passed.
  • Quarantined: Person is currently in 14-day quarantine due to close contact exposure to COVID-19.
  • Child care: Child’s school or daycare closed and no alternatives are available.

Any other COVID-19-related unemployment situation will be evaluated on an individual basis.

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In a statement, Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said the move didn't go far enough.

"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 business," he said. "If the decision to open the state prematurely wasn't bad enough, Abbott proved again that he really had no plan."

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