The Common Law

COVID-19 and Austin – answering your legal questions (part 5)

"The Common Law," which typically runs monthly, has started to address your COVID-19 legal questions on a weekly basis. You ask. We'll do our best to answer for as long as we remain in a period of uncertainty. Here are more questions and quick answers:

I've been out of work due to the coronavirus for weeks. I paid my April rent. But now I'm tapped out and can't pay May rent in full. Haven't some laws passed saying I don't have to pay my rent?

No. An Austin renter still has to pay rent, even under all the new orders and regulations. If you are short on this month's rent, communicate with your landlord about your specific situation in an effort to set up a payment plan.

Confusion may exist on this issue, in part because several orders have been passed by various governmental entities to protect renters, but none of these regulations allow a tenant to outright avoid paying rent. Here's a summary of the changes to landlord-tenant relationships in Austin:

• The Austin City Council passed a 60-day grace period for owed rent. This essentially adds an additional step to the eviction process by having landlords notify tenants of a proposed eviction in order to give the tenant 60 days to respond or pay rent in full before the landlord can post a notice to vacate.

• The CARES Act, signed into law in late March, provides 120 days of eviction relief for tenants in federally backed housing, which means tenants in this category can't be served with an eviction notice until July 25, 2020. The eviction notice must provide 30 days to vacate the property (August 24, 2020).

• All eviction hearings in Travis County have been postponed until at least May 8 (this deadline could be extended further).

• The city issued another order that prohibits a landlord's ability to seize tenant property, deliver notices to vacate, and conduct landlord lockouts.

Rent abatement (and the debate on the issue) continues to be an evolving issue during COVID-19. "The Common Law" will update any future changes to Austin's rent forgiveness programs.

The company I work for is in a business that's been deemed essential. We work in an office environment. But my employer is not taking appropriate health and safety precautions against COVID-19. The office seems unsafe. Is there anything I can do?

Employers are generally required to keep the workplace free of recognized hazards, which includes infectious diseases. Employers are required to do so under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which is enforced by an agency of the same name (the federal agency is commonly known as OSHA). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and OSHA have issued guidelines and recommended measures that employers can take to minimize the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing in the workplace and cleaning and disinfecting.

Review the CDC and OSHA guidelines. If you employer is noncompliant, you should raise your concerns directly with your employer (and show them the guidelines). Presumably your employer will want to act responsibly and will fix any improper issues. If the employer still doesn't fix the issues, you can file a formal complaint with OSHA (www.osha.gov/workers/file_complaint.html).

I had to stop working due to the coronavirus so I could stay home and watch my two school-age kids. Can I get unemployment benefits?

Most likely, yes. Unemployment benefits are typically available to folks that have stopped working for a coronavirus-related reasons, including if you must stay home to care for a child that can no longer attend school. The good news is that the stimulus package passed by Congress in March allows for an additional $600 per week to be paid over and above any state-provided unemployment benefits. The new stimulus bill also extends unemployment benefits an additional 13 weeks (taking it from a maximum of 26 weeks to 39 weeks).

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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