AUSTIN, Texas — Texas on Thursday joined the growing list of states that will pursue President Donald Trump’s plan to offer a stripped-down boost in unemployment benefits to millions of Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas will apply for federal grants allowing the state to increase unemployment checks by $300.
An Associated Press survey found that as of Thursday at least 25 states have said they intend to pursue the money while two states, Mississippi and South Dakota, have said they won't.
Abbott previously was noncommittal about whether Texas would accept the money while expressing optimism that Trump and Congress would reach a deal on a broader new coronavirus relief plan. People out of work had been receiving an extra federally funded $600 a week, but the boost expired at the end of July.
The president signed an executive order on Aug. 8 to extend the added weekly benefit, but cut it to $300 or $400 a week, depending on which plan governors choose.
"The Lost Wage Assistance program will provide crucial financial support to Texans who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Abbott said in a statement.
The decision from Abbott comes as 61,416 Texans applied for unemployment relief in the week ending Aug. 15. In total, more than 3.2 million Texans have applied for jobless assistance since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Abbott on Thursday did not indicate that the state intended to boost the payment with an additional $100 per week, as other states have done. He said the federal funding, if approved, will “provide an additional $300 per week in benefits for qualifying Texans receiving unemployment benefits.”
Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said "$300 a week is not enough."
"It is time for Trump and Abbott to stop nickel and diming our families," Rahman said in a statement Thursday. "We need real relief right now. Texans can’t take this president and this governor’s incompetence any more.”
Since Trump’s announcement, state officials have been confused about whether the executive order authorizing the payments was legal and whether states will be able to afford to implement it. Trump also required states to administer the additional payments, and governors across the country have warned that they don't have the capacity to do so. The initial $600 weekly benefits were paid by the federal government.
"Texas is grateful to President Trump for making these funds available to individuals and asks that our federal partners quickly grant this request so that TWC can swiftly administer this funding to Texans," Abbott said Thursday.
The Texas Workforce Commission, the state agency in charge of unemployment relief, has struggled to keep up during the pandemic and been bogged down by large waves of Texans seeking jobless assistance since March.
The agency has also been set back by an outdated unemployment benefits services system — the online platform providing a safety net for Texans affected by the pandemic. The program is stored on a mainframe computer system built in the early to mid-1990s.
The outdated system coupled with a severe understaffing at the agency facing a crush of calls and applications from jobless Texans earlier during the pandemic left many without assistance for weeks or even months.
Now, if the extra jobless funding the state is expected to apply for is federally approved, the workforce commission will have another task — distributing the money.
“Claimants currently receiving unemployment through TWC should continue to request payments as normal,” according to Abbott’s office. “Eligible claimants should expect to receive the additional benefits on their first payment request on or after Aug. 23. These funds will be backdated to the benefit week ending Aug. 1.”
This would help Anissa Dwiggins, a single mother from The Woodlands who has worked at an extracurricular program for Houston-area children since 1998. Dwiggins was forced to dip into her savings in August after extra $600 weekly jobless payments expired in late July.
After the payments expired, the president and both parties in Congress have been unable to come up with a deal to reauthorize them.
“Everything's kind of just come to a halt,” Dwiggins told The Texas Tribune.