By Clare Proctor – May 6, 2020

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The executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission told lawmakers during a telephone briefing Wednesday that the agency is planning to require Texans to begin searching for work in order to keep their unemployment benefits once Gov. Greg Abbott begins allowing restaurants and retail stores to open at 50% capacity, two Democratic legislators on the call told The Texas Tribune.

Abbott has said that the 50% capacity rule could come in his second phase of reopenings, which if all goes well with current phase could come as soon as May 18.

Cisco Gamez, spokesperson for the commission, declined to confirm the exact trigger for reinstating the work-search requirements but said that “it’s definitely going to happen at some point.” He said Executive Director Ed Serna “mentioned the potential for … reinstating work-search requirements” during a briefing with lawmakers, but nothing is set in stone. If those requirements were reinstated, Gamez said, they’d need approval from the agency’s commissioners. Texans would receive at least two weeks’ notice, he said.

“At this time, we do not have a start date for reinstating the work-search requirements,” Gamez said.

But State Reps. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, and Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said the commission presented the work-search reinstatement as a decision that had already been made. This was reaffirmed at least three times on the call, Zwiener said.

Zwiener said she and other lawmakers were “surprised and alarmed” by the plan and that it’s a sign that the agency is moving too fast.

“Allowing businesses to reopen at 50% capacity doesn’t mean that they are all reopening,” Zwiener said. “I don’t expect fully 50% of workers to be able to get jobs back at that point.”

Under federal guidance, the Texas Workforce Commission is allowing self-employed workers and independent contractors to receive unemployment benefits because of the coronavirus pandemic. But when lawmakers raised the question about what the work-search requirement would look like for these workers, Zwiener said, it seemed like the commission hadn’t thought that consideration through.

“They’re having to pivot very quickly,” Zwiener said. “Several agencies, including the TWC, are making really big decisions about the future of Texans and their livelihood and health.”

How the commission is logistically going to be able to process work-search requirements is also a concern, Zwiener said. Workers are still struggling to successfully file for unemployment, receiving busy signals on phone lines or waiting on receiving benefit payments. Zwiener received an email from a constituent as recently as Wednesday seeking help in getting through to the commission.

Normally, people seeking unemployment benefits have to register on workintexas.com and log a minimum number of work-search activities. This includes sending in job applications or participating at workshops at a Texas Workforce Solutions office. But acting on guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor that gives states flexibility on requirements to be eligible for unemployment benefits, the Texas Workforce Commission waived the work-search requirement March 17 after Abbott declared the coronavirus pandemic a statewide disaster.

“Why even prematurely reinstate the work-search requirement when it could increase the burden on the TWC?” Collier said. “What purpose would the work-search requirement serve if those jobs weren’t even in the same industry?”

People will continue receiving unemployment benefits after refusing to return to work if they are at high risk, live with someone who’s high risk or don’t have access to child care, among other guidelines.

The discussion in the call with lawmakers arose in the context of whether there is a “moral hazard” associated with unemployed workers receiving an additional $600 a week from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. The commission has told employers to report to the agency cases in which they’re concerned employees are refusing work because they earn more from unemployment benefits than their typical wages. Those cases will then be investigated.

But reinstating the work-search requirement to all workers is “premature and unnecessary,” Collier said.

“We need to be mindful of the data and resources that are available before we make changes or add additional requirements of those who need these resources the most,” Collier said.

“Texans could soon have to start looking for work to keep unemployment benefits if reopening continues” was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/06/texas-reopening-unemployment-benefits/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.