Texas Unemployment System Falters as Demand Surges

The agency that handles Texas unemployment has helped more than 2.3 million people apply for benefits and paid out $4.3 billion as of this week, but many residents have encountered problems with the system.

by Dom DiFurio, The Dallas Morning News / May 12, 2020
A sign announcing the temporary closure of the Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas office in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas on March 27, 2020. TNS

(TNS) — Denton County resident Gregory Wilder has been calling four different numbers he’s found for the Texas Workforce Commission since April 14.

He tried applying over the phone the first two weeks but the lines were so busy, Wilder said, he often wouldn’t even get a dial tone.

Now, weeks later, he feels his attempts to reach a human who can help him are futile. When he calls, he gets a recorded message asking him to fill out a form online to receive benefits. When he goes online to fill out the form, it tells him to call the agency.

“It’s just an endless circle,” said Wilder, who’s resorted to waking up at 4 a.m. this week to try to apply online, hoping it makes a difference.

Out-of-work Texans like Wilder remain frustrated, unable to apply for unemployment pay or correct issues with their claims even as the state processes fewer and fewer initial applications each week. They say they’re struggling to get through to the agency both online or by phone — sometimes for weeks with no success.

The number of unemployed Texans has hit historically unprecedented levels since lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus began in mid-March.

In a matter of weeks, the U.S. has erased all of the job gains made since the financial crisis of 2008. The agency that handles Texas unemployment has helped more than 2.3 million people apply for benefits and paid out $4.3 billion as of this week.

When The Dallas Morning News tried calling TWC’s phone line, it received either a busy signal or a message asking to hold as all representatives were busy with other callers.

TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez said Monday that the agency is still receiving more than 1 million calls a day, except for on weekends when it receives slightly less. One week ago, on May 4, the agency received 1.5 million calls in a day.

“The call volume has decreased, but not much. We’re still getting over a million calls each day. Even with eight call centers and 1,000 staff answering calls,” Gamez said. “We understand. We want to help them.”

Wilder said he’s called the agency more than 100 times since early April, when he was laid off from an executive position without any severance. The company just couldn’t afford to keep his position on payroll, he said.

He’s been unemployed before. He sees unemployment benefits as a way to help people who’ve lost their jobs bridge the gap until they’ve found employment — something he’s actively pursuing. He started searching for a job, any job, as soon as he got the news he was being let go.

“I’m looking at things way below my pay scale,” Wilder said.

TWC has hired hundreds of additional employees to answer calls and upgraded its website with a chatbot that can help answer basic questions about the unemployment process.

But Wilder said he can’t tell that it’s making a difference in his case. Over the weeks, he’s read about millions of Texans receiving unemployment while he continues to hit wall after wall in his own efforts.

“There's no way to fill out the form online, there's no way to talk to anybody, there's no way to leave a voicemail. It’s beyond frustrating,” he said.

Busy signal

Even when Texans like Steve Henn have been able to file an initial claim for unemployment, it’s become next to impossible to get in touch with the commission to correct the errors keeping him from receiving the benefits he believes he’s eligible to receive.

“I’ve continued to call to see if I can get my income accurately reflected so that the unemployment can cover the full amount available to me,” said Henn, a gig worker in Austin who’s driven for both Uber and Lyft.

Henn and his wife, who is still employed at a part-time job, support their two children. He said he’s also never been able to speak to a TWC staffer since starting the process in late March.

“I’ve had sittings where I made 50 calls, 100 calls. … And the closest I get is the automated system,” he said.

Henn is receiving payments, but he estimates it’s only about 40% of what he’s owed. He’s even tried faxing proof of his income to a number he was provided, only to get an error message saying the line is busy.

500 calls a day

Roughly 40 miles outside of College Station in Hilltop Lakes, Diana and Brandyn Bryant have been without income for almost nine weeks.

Brandyn, a former cook at local restaurant Tia Juanita’s, was the sole income for his family of six before statewide lockdown forced the restaurant to close and he was furloughed.

“The closest real town to us is 10 miles away. It’s only 700 people, so it’s small. So we’re a little more insulated from all of that. But we were not insulated from ... all the shutdowns,” said Diana.

Leon County, where the Bryants live, has recorded five total confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths.

Brandyn was finally able to file a claim last week. He’s now in a waiting period while TWC verifies his work status with Tia Juanita’s.

In the meantime, his wife’s unemployment benefits are also in limbo. She was unemployed and job hunting before the pandemic. Diana Bryant exhausted her benefits at the end of January.

She estimates she’s made 500 calls a day to TWC trying to get help with extended benefits.

“We’re at the kitchen table or in our patio chairs on the front porch — wherever we are — just continually hitting the button,” she said.

On Saturday, TWC began mailing letters to Texans like Diana Bryant, who are eligible for 13 weeks of additional benefits under the new Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

More than one month since the CARES Act established the program, she’s still waiting for a letter to begin the process of getting her benefits extended.

The TWC said it’s taken a month because the agency “had to program our benefits system and test our changes so we could properly assign claimants to the new pandemic unemployment programs with a minimum amount of disruption to the claims process.”

“As a taxpaying citizen in this state, I am outraged that a department within our state has allowed their systems and employee level to become so complacent that they could not be nimble enough to respond to an emergency situation,” said Diana.

©2020 The Dallas Morning News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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