Latest Coronavirus Updates From Gov. Abbott, Rent Help, Benefits For Texas Workers, Employers

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EDITORIAL NOTE: The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a very fluid situation, and it will continue to be. As new information becomes available from the State of Texas and federal government agencies, we will publish those updates. Disclaimer: Some information included below is provisional and subject to change.

As more and more communities around the United States experience, a rising number of Coronavirus cases, state and federal officials are looking at ways to further prevent community spread, ensure public safety and combat the rising economic impact.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an “Essential Services and Activities protocols,” which establishes restrictions similar to stay-at-home orders issued by a number of local governments in the state.

The “Essential Services and Activities” order extends the state’s coronavirus measures until April 30 and extends school closures until May 4.

The guidelines for residents to minimize social gatherings and minimize contact with people outside of the household as well as the directive to avoid eating out at restaurants, drinking at bars or visiting other businesses or facilities not related to essential services.

$2 Trillion Federal Stimulus Package To Fund Array of Benefits for Texas Workers, Employers

Disaster relief funds increased unemployment compensation and extended duration part of the federal package to help unemployed workers and businesses affected by COVID-19

AUSTIN – The $2 trillion federal stimulus package will provide quick relief to unemployed workers and struggling Texas businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working night and day to meet the huge demand from unemployed workers and businesses who have been affected by the economic impact of COVID-19,” said TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel. “The newly passed federal stimulus package provides disaster relief benefits, increased weekly unemployment compensation and extended benefits.”

Workers who have been laid off, terminated or furloughed because of COVID-19 are eligible for compensation. Employees who have hours reduced may also be eligible for benefits.

The self-employed who have lost their businesses may be eligible for disaster assistance as well.

“The safety net is there for our employees who have been furloughed, fired or laid off, and for those who have had their hours reduced,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. “Texas workers harmed by the economic disaster caused by COVID-19 are eligible for benefits, and we will work diligently to extend benefits to every worker who is eligible and applies.”

The federal stimulus package funds Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which allows states to extend unemployment benefits by an additional 13 weeks with federally funded benefits.

This means jobless benefits that expire at the end of 26 weeks can be extended.

The PEUC program will also increase weekly benefits by $600 for workers laid off, terminated or furloughed because of COVID-19. Eligible programs include regular Unemployment Insurance (UI), Extended Benefits and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

“We encourage employers who have had to lay off their employees to file one mass claim on behalf of all impacted workers, reducing traffic to our site and making the claims process easier,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Aaron Demerson. “In addition, there will be no chargeback to any Texas employers for claims filed due to COVID-19.”

Workers not eligible for regular or extended benefits or PEUC could be eligible for PUA. Akin to disaster unemployment assistance, this program provides unemployment benefits for individuals who lost their jobs or self-employed who are no longer working as a direct result of the pandemic, and who applied but are not eligible for regular unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, Short-Term Compensation programs, also known as Work Share, can provide federal benefits for certain workers whose hours have been reduced because of the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19.

Employees who have lost jobs or had hours reduced should apply for unemployment benefits online. Those seeking benefits can also call 1-800-939-6631. Because of the demand for benefits, systems have been slow and patience is requested.

Employers can also file mass claims on behalf of all employees laid off because of the COVID-19 economic slowdown online.

Because of COVID-19, workers who previously filed for unemployment benefits may also be eligible for an extension of benefits once regular UI expires.

TWC staff is committed to responding to each case in as timely a manner as possible, ensuring every eligible applicant gets the benefits they deserve.

TWC Launches New ChatBot for Unemployment Insurance Claims

Virtual Assistant “Larry the ChatBot” brings Automated Solution to Claims Backlog

AUSTIN ? The Texas Workforce Commission TWC has launched a new automated virtual assistant to help answer Texans’ questions on the unemployment insurance UI process. The artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot can instantly answer many of the most common questions about the UI process.

The program is expected to greatly relieve the pressure on the TWC UI website and call centers, which have seen activity spike to unprecedented levels in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our top priority is to eliminate the backlog, get Texans registered and on the path to getting the benefits they need,” said Ed Serna, TWC executive director. “We know people are hurting, and many are facing an uncertain future. A lot of Texans are applying for benefits for the very first time. That can be hard, and even though we’ve greatly streamlined the process, the sheer weight of the demand right now is unprecedented.”

TWC’s telecenters’ record call volume in previous crises was around 60,000 calls a day. Calls during the COVID-19 crisis rose to the millions within a week.

TWC has hired new workers to augment the traditional workforce, reallocated staff from other TWC departments and added hundreds of new phone lines.

“Larry the ChatBot” is an automated program that allows individuals to enter information relevant to their claims in a chat with a virtual assistant. “Larry” was programmed to initially understand the most common questions that people using the UI website have.

This small subset of questions consumes a large portion of the call center workload.

With its artificial intelligence matrix, “Larry” will “learn” more questions and more ways to help Texans over time, resulting in a much more efficient UI application process.

“This new technology is a huge step to speed up the claims application process and get Texans the help they need faster,” said Ed Serna, TWC executive director. “Automation not only makes the process work much faster, it empowers our telecenter staff as well. By taking the strain off our telecenter workers, it allows our highly trained staff to focus their effort on the more complex problems that require a human touch.”

TWC developed and launched “Larry” within a very short time period, working with a consortium of private partners. “Larry” is named for former TWC Executive Director Larry Temple, who passed away in 2019.

Governor Abbott Releases Video Message To Texans As Latest Executive Order Goes Into Effect

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today released a video with a statewide to message to all Texans as his Executive Order goes into effect requiring all Texans to stay home unless they are participating in an essential service or activity.

A list of essential services and activities as defined under the Executive Order can be found here. The Executive Order goes into effect at 12:01 AM, April 2nd.

 

Governor Abbott, TDHCA Take Initial Action To Secure Financial Housing Assistance

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) have taken initial action to provide tenant-based rental assistance for Texans experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19.

The Governor has waived statutes relating to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) HOME Investments Partnership program which would allow Texas greater flexibility to use program funds to help certain Texans pay their rent.

In addition, TDHCA has sent a letter to HUD requesting federal waivers to allow greater flexibility to Texas to reprogram these funds for that purpose.

If these waivers are granted, Texas will reprogram these funds to provide financial housing assistance to certain Texans enduring economic hardships related to COVID-19.

“The State of Texas is committed to supporting Texans who are enduring significant economic hardship due to the spread of COVID-19,” said Governor Abbott. “Suspending these state statutes is a crucial first step to help many Texans receive the financial assistance they need to pay their rent, and I urge HUD to grant the federal waiver requests.”

Governor Abbott Announces Federal Stimulus Package To Help Texans Affected By COVID-19

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today issued a statement regarding the recently passed $2 trillion federal stimulus package intended to relieve the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a special focus on unemployed workers and the state’s hardest-hit businesses.

“We appreciate the speedy passage of this stimulus package designed to provide much-needed relief for hardworking Texas families who have been economically impacted by COVID-19,” said Governor Abbott. “While the state of Texas continues to take action to protect public health, we are also committed to working with our federal partners to ensure Texans have the financial relief they need during this time.”

Workers are the main beneficiaries of the stimulus dollars, whether their situation consists of reduced hours, furlough, or termination related to COVID-19. Self-employed Texans whose businesses have failed under the stress of the global pandemic may also be eligible as well.

A newly created Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) fund is the bill’s primary vehicle, empowering states to extend federally-funded unemployment benefits by an additional 13 weeks (past the usual 26 weeks).

The fund also boosts weekly benefits for those laid off, terminated or furloughed due to COVID-19 by $600 per week.

The measures also reduce paperwork and speed the claims process by empowering employers to file one mass claim on behalf of all their employees laid off because of COVID-19.

It also eliminates any chargeback to Texas employers for claims filed due to COVID-19.

Much like disaster unemployment assistance seen in past weather-related disasters, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) may be available for displaced workers not normally eligible for regular or extended benefits.

Workers whose hours have been reduced due to the COVID-19 slowdown may qualify for Work Share, a federal Short-Term Compensation program.

Employees whose work has been impacted by COVID-19, whether by a reduction in hours or a loss of their job, are encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits online or call 1-800-939-6631.

Employers can also utilize online filing for mass claims they file on behalf of employee groups laid off due to COVID-19.

Governor Abbott Announces $14.1 Million In Grants To Texas Military Communities

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today announced a new round of grants totaling $14.1 million from the Texas Military Preparedness Commission’s (TMPC) Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grant (DEAAG) program awarded to various military communities across the state.

This program assists defense communities that may be positively or negatively impacted by a future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.

The grant money will be invested in infrastructure projects and other initiatives to increase the military value of military installations in Texas and protect jobs.

“The strength of our military communities in Texas is unparalleled in part because of state support like the DEAAG program,” said Governor Abbott. “Not only are the 15 major military installations and Army Futures Command in Texas critical for the defense of our nation, they also add over $101 billion to the state’s economy and support, directly and indirectly, more than 224,000 jobs in communities across this great state. Now more than ever, this support is critical. That is why I will continue to work with the Texas Legislature and TMPC to ensure that our military installations continue to add unmatched value.”

The following entities will receive FY2020-2021 DEAAG disbursements:

Abilene – $616,389; Security Control Center expansion at Dyess Air Force Base brings additional capacity to the security center

 Alamo Area Council of Governments – $5,000,000; Project reinforces and hardens power distribution across San Antonio and Joint Base San Antonio

 Corpus Christi – $919,500; Flight line security and safety enhancements at Corpus Christi Army Depot

 El Paso – $2,050,000; Expansion of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, serving El Paso and Fort Bliss

 Texarkana – $516,670; Robotic Vehicle Program preparing Red River Army Depot for the Army’s new robotics mission

 Tom Green County – $5,000,000; Project Resiliency funds power infrastructure, human resiliency and communications infrastructure benefiting San Angelo and Goodfellow Air Force Base

The TMPC is part of the Governor’s Office and advises the Governor and the Legislature on defense and military issues and ways to strengthen the position of Texas military installations in preparation for a potential BRAC and other defense-related issues.

The commission is composed of 13 members serving six-year staggered terms, typically representing an installation in their community.

Governor Abbott Announces Comfort Food Care Packages For Texas Youth And Families With Favor

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today announced the Comfort Food Care Package (CFCP) program to provide meals for at-risk youth and families in communities across Texas as the state responds to COVID-19.

As part of the program, participating restaurants offer CFCPs for patrons to purchase on behalf of families and youth in need. Each care package contains enough food to feed a family of 5 to 6 and will be delivered to recipients’ homes.

The program is a partnership between the Governor’s Public Safety Office, the Texas network of Family and Youth Success Programs (formerly called Services to At-Risk Youth), Favor Delivery, and the Texas Restaurant Association.

“Thank you to the generous Texans and restaurants across the state for stepping up to provide meals to families in need,” said Governor Abbott. “The Comfort Food Care Package program will provide at-risk youth and families with an additional food source while giving Texans another way to support local restaurants and their fellow Texans experiencing hardships due to COVID-19.”

“This innovative new program is a win for communities and restaurants across Texas,” said Emily Williams Knight, Ed.D., President, and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association. “By harnessing the generosity of Texans, customers can now support their communities and their favorite restaurants at the same time. I’m proud we could partner with Governor Abbott and Favor to launch this program so quickly. While we can’t predict when the impact of this crisis will end, we can find comfort in knowing that we have a new way to ensure everyone receives a meal and by doing that, we will help to keep local restaurants running.”

The Comfort Food Care Package program utilizes the following steps:

  1. Participating restaurants list CFCPs on their online ordering system for customers to purchase on behalf of at-risk families and youth in the community. 
  2. Customers add CFCPs to their orders and purchase.
  3. Family and Youth Success Programs identify families and shelters who have the most need and work with participating restaurants and Favor to get the meals delivered. 

Families interested in utilizing the CFCP program should contact their local Family and Youth Success Program for more information.

Restaurants interested in participating in the program can sign up on the Texas Restaurant Association website.

HHSC Launches Statewide COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line

AUSTIN – Texas Health and Human Services has launched a 24/7 statewide mental health support line to help Texans experiencing anxiety, stress or emotional challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new resource offers COVID-19-related mental health support for all Texans. People can call the Statewide COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week toll-free at 833-986-1919.

“Through this new effort, we are connecting Texans with mental health professionals who can help provide support to those who are feeling overwhelmed and stressed,” said Sonja Gaines, Deputy Executive Commissioner for Intellectual and Developmental Disability and Behavioral Health Services. “It can be helpful to talk to someone when you are facing anxiety, depression, and stress, which are not uncommon to experience in the face of a rapidly changing situation like a pandemic.”

Operated by the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD, the support line offers trauma-informed support and psychological first aid to those experiencing stress and anxiety related to COVID-19.

Counseling services are confidential and free of charge to people who call the hotline.

“It is important to recognize how our mental health can be affected by the pandemic,” said Sen. Jane Nelson. “The mental health support line for COVID-19 will go a long way to ensure Texans who are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues can access the care they need.”

For general health-related information and precautions on COVID-19, people can visit the DSHS webpage and the CDC webpage. To stay up-to-date on the latest news impacting HHS services and regulated providers, people can visit the HHS COVID-19 webpage.

For more information on mental health resources, find your local mental health authority here. 

Governor Abbott Announces Approval Of 1135 Medicaid Waiver

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today announced that the Center for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) has approved the Section 1135 Medicaid Waiver submitted by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) on March 25, 2020.

This approval grants Texas flexibility in administering Medicaid while the state continues to respond to COVID-19.

“I thank CMS for quickly granting this waiver so that the Lone Star State can continue to meet the routine needs of Texans on Medicaid,” said Governor Abbott. “These flexibilities ensure that care capacity is expanded for Texans who utilize Medicaid services, even as the state continues to respond to COVID-19.”

Flexibilities granted under this waiver include:

  • Extension of prior authorizations: For enrollees who have an existing prior authorization, CMS approves the state extending a prior authorization approved on or after March 1.
  • Suspension of Level 1 and Level II PASRR assessments: All new nursing facility admissions may be treated as an exempted hospital discharge for 30 days. After 30 days, new admissions with a mental illness or intellectual disability should be reviewed as soon as resources are available.
  • Fair hearing and appeals: CMS approves the extension of fair hearings up to 120 days (from 90 days) and Texas may choose to allow up 90 days for an enrollee to file an appeal.
  • Provider enrollment:
    • Texas may reimburse an out-of-state provider if: the service is provided out-of-state, the provider has an NPI on the claim, and the provider is enrolled in Medicare or another state’s Medicaid program.
    • Texas may provisionally/temporarily enroll an out-of-state provider not enrolled in Medicare or another state’s Medicaid program and waive the application fee, fingerprint criminal background check, site visit, and in-state license requirement.
      • Texas must collect information necessary to process claims, screen for state licensure in other states and screen against the OIG exclusion list. Texas must not issue temporary enrollments after the end of the public health emergency, not allow retroactive effective dates earlier than March 1, and  Texas must cease payments to temporarily enrolled providers within 6 months of the end of the public health emergency (unless the provider competes a Texas Medicaid enrollment).
    • Texas is granted a waiver to temporarily cease provider revalidation.
    • CMS grants the above flexibilities for CHIP.
  • Public notice: CMS grants Texas a waiver of public notice requirements

HHSC is continuing to work with CMS on additional flexibility requests that are associated with those approved today.

Governor Abbott Issues Executive Order, Implements Statewide Essential Services And Activities Protocols

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott today issued an Executive Order implementing Essential Services and Activities Protocols for the entire state of Texas.

The protocols direct all Texans to minimize non-essential gatherings and in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

The Governor’s Executive Order renews and amends his previous order enforcing federal social distancing guidelines for COVID-19, including closing schools and instructing Texans to avoid eating or drinking at bars and restaurants.

The protocols allow exceptions for essential activities and services based on the Department of Homeland Security’s guidelines on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce.

Examples of these essential services include healthcare, grocery stores, banking, and financial services, utilities, child care for essential service employees, and government services.

The Executive Order follows the decision by President Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to enhance social distancing guidelines and extend the deadline for these guidelines to April 30th.

Governor Abbott was joined for the announcement by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Commissioner John Hellerstedt, MD, Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) Chief Nim Kidd, and Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath.

“Social distancing is our best tool in the fight against COVID-19, and the actions we have taken thus far have proven to be effective in limiting the spread of this virus,” said Governor Abbott. “Now it is time to redouble our efforts to reduce further exposure as much as possible and flatten the curve. As with all the actions the state is taking, the Essential Services and Activities Protocols is informed by the expertise and guidance of the CDC as well as state and local health officials. I urge my fellow Texans to heed these heightened social distancing directives to protect their health and the health of those around them. By following these guidelines, we will limit the spread of COVID-19 and overcome this challenge together.”

The Executive Order renews and expands the Governor’s previous directive to minimize social gatherings and minimize contact with people who are not in the same household.

It also renews the Governor’s directive to avoid eating or drinking at bars, restaurants, and food courts and visiting gyms or massage establishments, and it expands the order to include tattoo studios, piercing studios, and cosmetology salons.

In accordance with federal guidelines, people are still prohibited from visiting nursing homes, state-supported living centers, assisted living facilities, or long-term care facilities unless to provide critical assistance.

Additionally, schools will remain temporarily closed to in-person classroom attendance through May 4, 2020.

This Executive Order does not prohibit people from accessing essential services or engaging in essential daily activities, such as going to the grocery store or gas station, providing or obtaining other essential services, hunting or fishing, or engaging in physical activity like jogging or bicycling, so long as the necessary precautions are maintained to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

The order also includes an exemption for religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship. All critical infrastructure will remain operational, and government entities and businesses will continue providing essential services.

TDEM will maintain an online list of essential services specified in the Governor’s Executive Order at www.tdem.texas.gov/essentialservices/. Other essential services may be added to this list with the approval of TDEM.

These orders will be effective on a statewide basis starting at 12:01 AM on April 2, 2020, and will end on April 30, 2020, subject to extension thereafter based on the status of COVID-19 in Texas and the recommendations of the CDC.

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