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Thursday, April 30, 2020

As Unemployment Roils the State, Some Texans Have Given Up on Trying to Get Help

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2020 at 10:50 AM

click to enlarge Volunteers prepare to hand out produce and H-E-B gift cards at a South San Antonio food distribution point. - COURTESY PHOTO / LOTS OF LOVE
  • Courtesy photo / Lots of Love
  • Volunteers prepare to hand out produce and H-E-B gift cards at a South San Antonio food distribution point.
Another 254,199 Texans filed new claims for unemployment last week.

That brings the total number of Texans filing claims to over 1.5 million in the six weeks since state and local stay-at-home mandates began shuttering businesses across Texas, causing some companies to cut workers’ hours, lay off employees or furlough staffers.



Last week’s claims are down about 9.5% from the 280,406 filings in the week ending April 18.

Nationally, 3.8 million Americans filed for unemployment last week for a total of 30 million claims since mid-March.

Last week, the Texas Workforce Commission converted 145,000 unemployment claims to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the commission, said in an email. The assistance program allows people who normally don’t qualify for unemployment benefits — such as self-employed workers, independent contractors and gig workers — to apply for aid if they’re unable to work because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Yet some self-employed workers have given up on trying to apply for benefits, and others are receiving significantly less than they would typically make in a given week.

Steven Blackstone — who owns Sacred Healing Tree, which offers realignment therapy and herbal formulas, in Live Oak — tried to apply for unemployment early. Even when he tried to log on during recommended times, it “wasn’t being very fruitful,” so he said he gave up.

“I’m not relying on anybody else to try to help me,” Blackstone said. “I don’t feel that that’s reliable.”

He also applied for a small-business disaster loan, but Blackstone said he doesn’t “expect 1 cent.” To make do in the meantime, Blackstone said he’s living out of his office and has put off making two car payments.

The hundreds of thousands of additional claims come as Gov. Greg Abbott is allowing restaurants, retail stores, malls and movie theaters to reopen Friday, the first phase of the state’s plan to slowly restore the economy.

The workforce commission is working to establish guidelines for situations in which employees can refuse to return to work out of concern for being exposed to the coronavirus and still receive unemployment benefits, Gamez said at a Wednesday press briefing.

“We understand that this is a unique situation, and our standard unemployment insurance policy may not apply,” Gamez said. “We are not automatically going to cut people’s benefits off if they’re not returning to work.”

According to an April 22 press release from the commission, self-employed workers and individual contractors are first denied regular unemployment benefits, but the agency will automatically enroll those people in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The initial denial does not affect eligibility for the new program, and people will be notified via mail or email if they qualify for the program.

Eligible self-employed workers and independent contractors receive a base benefit amount of $207 a week from the state, plus an additional $600 a week from federal funds. Applicants have to submit their 2019 tax forms by Dec. 26, and once submitted, their weekly benefits from the state can be increased and backdated.

On the online form, these workers should select “reduced hours” under the reason for job separation and “COVID-19” under the disaster impact section to complete their claims, according to the release.

Christian Gutierrez has successfully applied for unemployment. He’s self-employed as a dance instructor at Latin Dance Factory in Pearland. But because he hasn’t yet sent in his 2019 tax form to the Texas Workforce Commission, he said his weekly benefits aren’t enough to live off of.

“Essentially, they’re thinking that my wages are minimum wage,” Gutierrez said. “And we haven’t gotten the $600.”

In the meantime, Gutierrez said he’s been living off savings and posting online lessons for his dance students. But he said he’s still trying to figure out how to afford groceries, his mortgage and car payments.

Also self-employed, Chris Timberlake, a fine arts jeweler in Austin, said he keeps the unemployment application pulled up on his computer, but he hasn’t applied.

“You basically have to do that as a full-time job,” Timberlake said. “I’m still getting paid a little bit. I feel like other people probably need to get [benefits] before me.”

Cutting gemstones and making custom wedding and engagement rings makes up the bulk of Timberlake’s work, he said. But many clients are postponing their weddings or engagements because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he said he’s only received two new inquiries. The coronavirus pandemic is different from anything he’s ever seen, Timberlake said, because “even during the Great Recession … people kept on getting married.”

Blackstone, the Chinese medicine practitioner, has kept his business open during the pandemic. He said he had the opportunity to stay open since he’s in the “alternative health care field,” and his clients would deem his services as essential. But Blackstone said he’s only making 20% of what he typically earns.

“It’s a struggle. … I’m just staying afloat,” Blackstone said. “I’m not sure that ‘normal’ is ever going to be normal again.”

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