State’s workforce surpasses pre-pandemic high

The Texas labor market exceeded the previous pre-pandemic high in February 2020 by hitting just under 13 million nonagricultural jobs in November, the Texas Workforce Commission reported last Friday. The adjusted jobless rate was 5.2% last month, down slightly from the previous month.

“Reaching this milestone for job creation in Texas shows the strength of our economy,” TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel said.

The Amarillo area had the lowest unemployment rate among Texas Metropolitan Statistical Areas at 3.1%, followed by the Austin-Round Rock MSA at 3.2% and College Station-Bryan at 3.5%.

“Texas continues to reach unprecedented milestones thanks to our unwavering commitment to economic freedom and our young, skilled, growing, and diverse workforce,” Gov. Greg Abbott said.

PUC approves electric grid reliability measures

The state Public Utility Commission last week voted unanimously to enhance both short-term and long-term reliability of the state’s electric grid through what it termed “major reforms” to the state’s wholesale electricity market.

“In prior years, any single one of these changes would have been considered significant. Taken together, they are a generational shift in the Texas electricity market,” said Peter Lake, PUC chairman. “This (is) a move away from the crisis-based business model we have operated under for the past two decades. This new model centers on reliability.”

Some of the major changes:

• Changes in the mathematical formula used to price electricity when reserves become scarce. The change will provide earlier price signals to add additional generation of power and for large consumers to reduce demand.

• Increasing incentives for large consumers to cut usage when the grid needs additional power.

• New or revamped ancillary services that increase the capacity for generators to react to sudden swings in electricity supply and demand.

Phase two of the process will provide “long-term incentives for investment in reliable power generation infrastructure to ensure Texas will have the power the state's needs for decades,” according to the news release.

Count of fatal job injuries for 2020 released

A total of 469 people working in Texas died in work-related incidents in 2020, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. That is a 23% decrease from 2019. The state’s incident rate for fatalities was 3.9 per 100,000 full-time employees in 2020, while the national incident rate stood at 3.4.

The construction industry accounted for 27% of the fatalities, with 127 incidents, according to TDI. Fatalities in the transportation and warehousing industries had the second highest, accounting for 20.4% with 96 people killed. Natural resources and mining recorded the third-highest number with 54 fatalities, or 11.5%.

Raising the bar for higher education

The Commissioner of Higher Education said last week the state is raising the bar for higher education. In an address before nearly 200 higher education leaders, Harrison Keller released “an ambitious vision for higher education,” according to a news release from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The updated strategic plan for the state’s higher education system includes:

• Adding a new goal for 35- to 64-year-olds who need new skills to compete in today’s economy.

• A broader range of postsecondary credentials of value to fit workforce needs.

• The goal of students having no college debt or at least a low, manageable debt.

• A greater focus on research and development to drive innovation.

• Renewing the state’s commitment to advancing equity for all Texans to complete post secondary degrees and certificates.

Keller called the present time “the greatest opportunity since the end of World War II to make an impact in higher education.”

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, we arrive at another defining moment in history,” he said. “In Texas, the window of opportunity is open for us to work together to advance and enhance this vision for higher education and enrich the lives of generations to come.”

Vaccine battle mandate likely headed to Supreme Court

The fight over a federal COVID-19 mandate for companies with more than 100 employees is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a lower-court decision that had paused the mandate nationwide. The mandate from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now scheduled to take effect Jan. 4.

Republican state attorneys general in 27 states, including Texas, are suing OSHA over the mandate, joined by conservative groups, business associations and individual businesses, The Dallas Morning News reported.

The Biden administration issued a statement after the appeals court ruling: “Especially as the U.S. faces the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it’s critical we move forward with vaccination requirements and protections for workers with the urgency needed in this moment.”

Meanwhile, Abbott announced last week that he had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reaffirming the state would not enforce the mandate on members of the Texas National Guard.

“The state of Texas will not enforce this latest COVID-19 vaccine mandate against its guardsmen,” Abbott said. “If the federal government keeps threatening to defund the Texas National Guard, I will deploy every legal tool available to me as governor in defense of these American heroes.”

The number of new cases of COVID-19 reported last week stood at 36,508, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, down slightly from the previous week, while deaths rose to 478.

The number of law-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations totaled 3,117 on Sunday, virtually unchanged from the previous week, according to the Texas State Department of Health Services.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.