Texas' Unemployment Benefits System Is At A Standstill. The State Wants People To Keep Holding.

Mar 31, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 5:19 pm

When Brian Biehl found out Wednesday that he’d been furloughed from his job at a company that makes software for restaurants in Austin, the first thing he did was take his dog for a walk.

“You know, [to] kind of assess the situation,” he said.

Then Biehl made some calls to see about another job. In the meantime, though, he would apply for unemployment benefits. He started online. But the website for the Texas Workforce Commission, which handles unemployment benefits in the state, told him to call. That wasn’t so easy.

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“I’ve tried to at least contact the office for unemployment multiple times a day every day since then,” Biehl said. “You know, you call and if you can even get through [you get] a recording — usually it’s a busy signal.”

Biehl is not alone. At least 155,657 Texans filed first-time claims for unemployment during the week ending March 21. The Workforce Commission has declined to give updated numbers since then. 

The TWC says on a normal day, one of its four call centers handles a total of about 13,000 calls. They're now fielding a total of about 1.5 million calls per day. That’s jammed call centers and put a strain on the agency’s website.

When I tried calling the TWC hotline, I only got a busy signal.

Last week, TWC Executive Director Ed Serna acknowledged the issues people are having.

“We know it is very frustrating, and it is also at times very scary for individuals who have been let go from work, oftentimes for the first time let go from work,” he said. “I assure you that we will help everyone that needs help.”

Serna promised to transfer more employees to handle calls from the public and said the agency was hiring temporary workers to help answer phones.

“We are working extended hours, we are working on the weekends. It’s all hands on deck,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the TWC.

Gamez says the agency is also working to expand its capacity — it's moved 200 employees from elsewhere at TWC into the unemployment division and made 100 emergency hires. The agency is hiring more people through the WorkInTexas.com website (though that site, too, is sometimes inaccessible). Still, the volume of calls appears to be overwhelming even the expanded capacity.

“What I don’t want is people stressing out like, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m losing money because I’m not getting through,’” Gamez said. In general, he says, as long as you apply within the same week, your benefits will be the same — regardless of whether it’s Monday or Thursday.

He didn’t have much advice for people trying to call — other than to keep trying. Employees are simply overwhelmed by the volume of calls. But if you can apply online, he said, you should. While the website might be overloaded during the day, Gamez said traffic on the site is lightest between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. (which isn’t surprising), so that could be your best time to try if you have been getting error messages.

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