Coronavirus in Texas: Despite economic gloom, transportation agency votes to keep I-35 expansion on track

Coronavirus in Texas: Despite economic gloom, transportation agency votes to keep I-35 expansion on track

North Lamar Boulevard in Austin is empty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Lamar Boulevard in Austin is empty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Thursday’s biggest developments:

  • State transportation department votes to move forward on I-35 expansion plans
  • Texans among federal lawmakers wanting investigation into meatpacking plants

Workforce Commission: Employers should report rejections of suitable work

[12:15 p.m.] As some businesses and restaurants prepare to open their doors to the public Friday, the Texas Workforce Commission is advising employers to report employees who say they won’t return to work because they can earn more money from unemployment benefits.

“You can’t force them to come back,” Velissa Chapa, legal counsel to the commissioner representing employers, said during a webinar Thursday. “But if an employee had already filed for unemployment, they may be denied benefits if they deny suitable work.”

“Suitable work” must be within the realm of the worker’s training and experience and doesn’t include work that can be proven as unsafe, said Tommy Simmons, who also provides legal counsel to a workforce commissioner.

Employers should give workers written proof of steps taken to create a safe work environment, including things like sanitization guidelines and social distancing parameters, Chapa said, adding that employers should also document written offers of work. Employers should report rejections based on an employee’s preference to receive unemployment benefits to the commission’s fraud department, she said.

A Texas Workforce Commission spokesman told The Tribune Tuesday that they are working on establishing guidelines for what constitutes “good cause” for employees to refuse to return to work. — Clare Proctor

Transportation commissioners vote to keep I-35 expansion on track

[11:05 a.m.] The Texas Department of Transportation is moving ahead with a multi-billion-dollar expansion of I-35 in Austin, despite requests from some Texas legislators to wait until the state’s financial outlook clears up.

Texas transportation commissioners voted 3-1 Thursday to use the $3.4 billion in the agency’s discretionary funds on the project, which adds lanes to the highway in Central Texas and which, according to agency officials, will eliminate 11 of the 12 worst “choke points” on state highways.

Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said the vote to proceed isn’t a promise the project will be built, but commits the funding in the agency’s Unified Transportation Program, or UTP. The discretionary funds would cover a little less than half of the total $7.5 billion price tag, most of which was previously approved by the commission.

“The COVID-19 environment we are living through today has had historic impacts on the world economy and our economy in Texas,” Bugg said. “But we know the sun will once again shine on Texas. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of this commission to look ahead to the future needs of Texas.” — Ross Ramsey

Congressional Hispanic Caucus wants better working conditions for meatpackers

[5 a.m.] The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, chaired by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, is calling on the federal government to improve working conditions for employees in the meat processing industry. In a letter sent to senior Trump administration officials, the federal lawmakers also asked for an investigation into working conditions of meatpacking businesses.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is investigating coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing plants JBS Beef and Tyson Foods in Moore and Shelby counties, respectively. More than a dozen meat and poultry processing plants nationwide, often staffed by immigrant workers, have had to temporarily shut down to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

According to Angelina County Judge Don Lymbery, nine of 10 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed there Wednesday were from Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the largest chicken producers in the country.

“We request that you conduct an investigation into the pervasiveness and consequential effects that the working conditions for meat processing workers during COVID-19 have had on workers’ wellbeing and our nation’s food supply,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus members wrote in a letter to the Trump administration.

Besides Castro, who is a San Antonio Democrat, U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston also signed the letter.

“However, while an investigation is critical to better understand the problems in the meatpacking industry and possible solutions, it is imperative that the Department of Labor immediately issue an emergency temporary standard to protect essential workers,” the letter said. — Abby Livingston

More than 27,000 Texans have contracted the new coronavirus

[5 a.m.] Texas health officials are expected later Thursday to release the latest numbers of Texans who have tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, 27,054 Texans have contracted the virus, and 732 people have died. See maps of the latest case numbers for each county and case rates per 1,000 residents.

Source: Texas Tribune

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