Last week, an El Paso TV station broke the news: A longtime worker at the city’s state-run psychiatric center had died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. It was, according to the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), the first confirmed death of a state worker from the novel coronavirus. It was also a sad inflection point after labor advocates had spent weeks criticizing the state’s approach to protecting the approximately 328,000 employees who run its agencies and universities.
On March 13, Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work opportunities to employees. But, in practice, the state’s approach over the past month and a half has been lethargic and scattershot, according to Joe Montemayor, organizing coordinator for the TSEU. The term “state employee” may bring to mind the image of well-off bureaucrats, but that’s often inaccurate. Many workers at state-supported living centers—facilities that house Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities—make less than $25,000 a year. And the same goes for many employees still laboring during COVID-19.