COVID-19 fears soon won’t be an excuse for Texans collecting unemployment

Texans who are collecting unemployment pay could lose it if they turn down a job due to COVID-19 fears.

That has been a valid reason for people to decline an offer for the past year. 

The number of people who filed for unemployment benefits declined by 9,000 last week to 376,000.

Nearly 3.5 million Americans are getting state benefits. That's a decrease of 258,000 from the week before. 

While this is good news, unemployment claims remain dramatically higher than before the pandemic. However, that could change now that the Texas Workforce Commission will not allow pandemic fears as a reason to collect unemployment.

Those collecting unemployment benefits could reject a job if, for example, an employer does not have safety rules to protect workers from exposure. But the excuse ends in two weeks. 

Darlinda Perkins had a job prior to getting a severe case of COVID last July. Now, she’s unemployed and looking for work but says most available jobs are simply too much.

"I almost lost my life to COVID. I was on life support. 73 days in the hospital," she said. "Pre-COVID, I might have been able to do a service job or a more physical job. But right now, my body just wouldn’t permit that."

Perkins says she’s been financially stressed since Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state will be opting out of federal unemployment programs after June 26, including an additional $300 per week benefit.

Now, the TWC says it’s removing exemptions to state aid that allowed people to turn down certain jobs because they fear getting COVID.

"We are in a new era," said TWC Spokesperson James Bernsen. "A lot of people have gotten the vaccine and the number of COVID cases have gone down. Really, we don’t need these blanket categories to allow people to refuse work."

Those exemptions expire the same day as federal benefits on June 26.

Both the TWC and Gov. Abbott say the state now has as many jobs as there are unemployed. TWC says its focus is connecting people to those positions with nearly 45% paying more than $15.50 an hour. 

"We have a statewide jobs bank, which is," Bernsen said. "And I think I looked there the other day and there were 800,000 jobs just on that website."

Despite the changing landscape, Perkins — who’s a single mom — says she’s still not finding jobs she can handle that also pay a living wage. And the timing could not be worse with school on summer break and childcare as an added expense.

"We just want what the federal government had promised us. We want to pandemic benefits until September," she said. "Just this abruptly being cut off, people are scrambling to figure out what’s going to be the next move."