CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — More than 1.5 million Texans have filed unemployment claims in the last six weeks.
"I lost my job March 15th due to COVID. I'm a bartender at one of the hotels." Jackie Brown said.
Many Texans are in the same position. And now with businesses opening back up there are new concerns about the health and safety of employees when they return.
"I have Crohn's disease so I have to be very careful because it's an autoimmune disease." Brown said.
That's why Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) announced new guidelines for unemployment eligibility requirements.
Heather Lucas is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment and she says this is an ever-changing situation.
"In order for you to typically receive unemployment you must not refuse work." she said. "But that includes not being able to refuse suitable work and in the definition of suitable is it being a safe workplace."
Now employees who have been asked to return to work but have concerns about their health or the health of their families can receive unemployment benefits should they choose not to go back.
"Before yesterday as of a couple days ago the guidelines were still if you refuse to go back to work for any reason, you can no longer receive unemployment so I think that we're getting there. Now we have some guidelines."
The following are reasons benefits would be granted if the individual refused suitable work:
- At High Risk – People 65 years or older are at a higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19 (Source DSHS website).
- Household member at high risk – People 65 years or older are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 (source DSHS website).
- Diagnosed with COVID - the individual 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 – individual 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.
But those guidelines leave some gray areas.
“Obviously schools are closed -- daycares are closed." Lucas said. "The individual has to be honest about whether or not that is actually impeding them from going to work. Simply being concerned about safety is going to be completely up to the TWC on a case by case basis. “
The Workforce Commission also says that if you choose not to return to work because of COVID-19 related reasons, you are not protected from being fired by your employer at this time.
"It is going to be evolving. I think as we enter each phase of Texas opening, we will see more of an evolution in what that means for unemployment." Lucas said.