Politics

As Abbott Opts Out Of Federal COVID-19 Jobless Benefits, Houstonians See A Tough Road Ahead

Unemployed workers planned to get additional assistance through September, but Gov. Greg Abbott is cutting off the aid in June.

Gov. Greg Abbott during an Aug. 27, 2020 press conference in Orange, Texas.

Starting next month, many unemployed Texans will no longer get extra financial assistance, after Gov. Greg Abbott decided to opt Texas out of a federal COVID-19 program that gave additional relief to people who have lost income during the pandemic.

Abbott said he's ending the aid so people will return to work, explaining in a statement: "The focus must be on helping unemployed Texans connect with the more than a million job openings, rather than paying unemployment benefits to remain off the employment rolls."

But for some Houstonians, it's not that simple.

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When the pandemic started, Scott Byers, a clarinet teacher in Houston, converted part of his bedroom into a soundproof studio and he hunkered down to figure out how to teach an instrument virtually. He teaches private lessons, and works part time at San Jacinto College. Still, during the pandemic, his business suffered.

But Byers said he's been able to get by. One big reason for that: he was able to get unemployment benefits to supplement his reduced income.

"There is a category of people like me who are freelance, and filing for that relief was a headache — anxiety-induced," Byers said. "But I got through."

Typically self-employed, part-time or gig workers aren't eligible, but during the pandemic, they have been — until Abbott's decision this month to opt out of the federal program at the end of June, cutting short the federal assistance that many Texans were expecting to receive through September.

But Byers said his income likely won't fully return to normal until the fall.

"I do need the support," he said. "I have to think about June and July and August."

Freelancers aren't the only ones impacted. People who are traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits will see a cut next month, too. They'll lose the extra $300 per week they were getting to help them through the pandemic.

While many people's jobs have returned, Tony, a trade show worker who lives in Kingwood, said his industry isn't back yet.

"Trade shows bring in a lot of people," said Tony, who asked Houston Public Media not to use his last name because of privacy concerns. "You have a lot of mixing and mingling so it's going to take a little bit longer than most jobs, getting back to work."

He said he disagrees with Abbott's decision to stop the extra unemployment assistance.

"I know he's getting pressure probably from the restaurant association and people like that, because people don't want to go to work because they're probably making more money being at home,” he said. “But just making the cut across the board, I'm not sure that's the way to do it."

Abbott said he's ending the program because so many jobs are open in Texas now. But according to the Texas Workforce Commission, half of them pay less than $15.50 an hour.

Bryan Lopez, a student finishing his MBA at Rice University, is going to lose his extra assistance, too. He lost income during the pandemic, and with graduation two months away, he's looking for jobs in business development or management.

"A lot of jobs right now that are available are for entry level jobs, not really for people moving up to management or even associates,” Lopez said. “It's kind of been a big hassle finding jobs that meet my criteria. I don't think the job market's there yet.”

He said Abbott shouldn't have ended the program early — at least, not for everyone. He's worried that Houston food pantries and other nonprofits will see increased demand as people lose their additional unemployment assistance, and that there won’t be resources available to meet that demand.

"I'll be okay. Not where I used to be before COVID happened, but I'll be okay," Lopez said. "But I don't think that this policy should be applied across the board because there are people that actually need this to survive, and they won't be getting the funds to do so."

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Jen Rice

Reporter

Jen Rice is the City Hall reporter at Houston Public Media, where she covers topics like Houston City Council and housing. Jen was born and raised in Houston's 100-year floodplain. She graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University and has a master's degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs...

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