Texas Unions Say COVID-19 Shows Need To Protect Workers

By Katie Buehler
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Law360 (January 25, 2021, 6:10 PM EST) -- Texas' largest unions are calling on state lawmakers to overhaul and modernize the state's employment insurance system and establish presumptive workers' compensation for employees exposed to COVID-19 on the job. 

State legislators need to give "more than just lip service" to the essential workers they have called heroes during the pandemic, Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy said during a virtual roundtable discussion Monday about the group's priorities for the 2021 legislative session. The AFL-CIO and other Texas unions say it's crucial that the Legislature add pandemic-related protections for workers such as ensuring access to personal protective equipment and establishing safety and health guidelines for reopening schools, as well as long-term changes such as raising wages and canceling student loan debt for front-line workers.

Levy said during the roundtable discussion hosted on Zoom that the pandemic showed how ill-prepared the Texas Workforce Commission was to handle the economic fallout. In 2020, the average number of weekly initial unemployment claims were seven times higher than in 2019, with 4.2 million claims filed since mid-March. The union group received reports that workers filing for unemployment benefits sometimes had to wait days to speak to a representative, Levy said.

"COVID has hit Texas workers like a punch to the gut, a serious punch to the gut," Levy said. "It fully exposed the poor levels of workplace safety, job security and the ability for working people to get by."

The Texas AFL-CIO's proposed 10-point plan calls on Texas to increase staffing at the commission and modernize technology to allow workers to apply for benefits online. The union group is also asking for an increased wage replacement rate of up to 60% and new employee classification guidelines that would put in place penalties for employers who wrongly classify their workers as independent contractors who are not eligible for unemployment benefits, among other changes.

But Annie Spilman, state director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, told Law360 that while employers see the benefits of some of the Texas AFL-CIO's proposed changes, others could "flatline" small businesses that were already just scraping by before the pandemic hit.

"At some point there's too much cost," Spilman said.

The Texas AFL-CIO also suggests the Texas Workforce Commission should change its approach to investigating fraud and overpayments. The commission should "assume improper payments resulting from application misinformation were the result of honest errors unless evidence clearly suggests otherwise" instead of the commission's current practice of returning overpayments to the unemployment insurance system, according to the group's plan.

Spilman criticized the proposal, saying the overpayments should be returned to the system for use by other workers who need them.

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, on Monday championed presumptive workers' compensation for front-line and at-risk employees who contract COVID-19 on the job. Xie said front-line workers live in constant fear of contracting the virus and passing it on to family members.

"The Texas Legislature has the opportunity and responsibility to make it better," Xie said.

But businesses fear "bad actors" if workers' compensation is presumptive, Spilman said. The change could also encourage litigation and gaming of the system.

Xie also floated on Monday a proposal for student loan forgiveness and for making it easier for front-line workers to pursue advanced degrees.

The unions also have their sights set on the state budget, which will be a major focus of the legislative session.

Representatives for both the Dallas Alliance-AFT and Texas State Employees Union plan to lobby for wage increases for teachers and state employees, respectively.

Leonard Aguilar, political director of the Southwest Pipe Trades Association, said his main focus will be vying for the passage of H.B. 636, which would allow the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners to continue past its current May 31 expiration date. The board plays an essential role in regulating training and licensing of plumbers.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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