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Busy Phone Lines, Backlogs And Benefits: Your Unemployment Questions Answered

A closed sign on an Austin business
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
The Texas Workforce Commission is beleaguered by record unemployment claims. But it says it is adding capacity, and temporary changes offering new COVID-19 protections for some folks.

From Texas Standard:

The state's unemployment agency, the Texas Workforce Commission, will continue to pay benefits to some who choose not to return to work, even as some sectors in the Texas economy begin to reopen. That announcement from late last week came out alongside news that the state paid out more than $417 million that same week in claims to some 245,000 Texans. And yet we continue to hear from many listeners who are having problems even filing.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna spoke with Texas Standard host David Brown on Monday. Their conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.

Could the state run out of money?

No, sir. Mathematically, we could. And I’m going to explain how I said no and yes at the same time. Right before all this started, our trust fund balance was just under $2 billion. We've paid out close to $3 billion already. So, if you do the math, you know, two minus three gives you a negative number. However, there is a mechanism that's in place that has always been in place that states can use and we take advantage of it. And that's called a Title XII loan. It's an interest free loan from the federal government. We've already submitted our request before our balance got close to zero. We had already submitted our request. So, as our balance hits zero and you can imagine while we've issued payments, they have haven't all drawn those funds yet. But as our accounts hit zero then other funds will get put into the account and we'll continue to pay our customers without delay and without anybody having to take a reduction in benefits.

When will the state fund run out?

It'll probably be sometime this month where we'll actually hit the zero – but the money will be there, you know, before we hit the zero. So, the payments will just continue.

New guidance from the governor directs the TWC to keep paying for some who have the opportunity to work again, but can't or they don't want to for some specific reasons, like being over 65 or recovering from the virus or living with someone in either of those categories. Another acceptable reason is no child care options. Any idea how long these exceptions for continuing to receive unemployment will be extended?

A lot of that guidance comes from the health officials. Most of the reasons, you know, that were listed have to do with health. Someone either is in a high-risk group as defined by Department of State Health Services or is living with someone in a high-risk group or they are quarantined or they have been diagnosed as having COVID-19 or somebody in the household has COVID-19. Of course, the only one that’s not really health-related is the child care. I'm not sure when health officials will say, 'look, you know, this thing is at such a point that there is that these risks don't exist anymore.' So, we'll continue to monitor that. With regard to the child care, right now, health officials are saying, 'look, child care facilities are open for essential workers, but really not for everybody else yet.' When they say it's OK for child care facilities to be safe and more facilities are open to the general public, then that one will probably get removed off of the list.

What about workers with an underlying health condition? There's room in this guidance for other exceptions. What sort of things are you being asked or anticipating being asked to make an exception for at this juncture?

Well, of course, you know, when we point to – and I'm not trying to sound like a broken record – but when we point to State Health Services, they have a whole list of potential medical issues that could put you in that high-risk category. And we're going to use those issues. And the reason I'm not being specific and we point back to that list is that list could change. You know, we've all seen in the paper that some of the symptoms have changed. And there are other things that change with regard to this particular virus. So, we continue to point that way and would encourage individuals who are ready to go back to work and have been offered a suitable employment to look at that, because that list changes – and it doesn't change daily, by the way – but it does change.

How difficult is it going to be for your team to review situations where someone wants to continue to claim benefits even though they have a chance to go back to work?

We don't believe it'll be that difficult for several reasons. First of all, people call in to renew their payments – it's called a continuing claim – to request the next two weeks of their benefit payments. And at that point, they tell us that they are able but are not available to take employment and they maybe have turned down employment. We'll look at their reasons. And if it's clear cut and it matches what we're looking at, it's going to be a pretty black-and-white decision. Some will take advantage of the situation. We recognize that there are always people like that, but we believe that to be in the very small minority of situations. The only cases that are going to take some investigation are a situation where someone says, 'I can't do this because of some other situation that's not listed there.' You know, 'I don't feel safe' or 'the environment that I'm going into, I don't believe it's safe.' That's going to take a little bit more investigation at that point.

What’s the best way to file for unemployment right now?

There are only two ways to file for unemployment in the state of Texas: calling our 800 number or through our web site. And the reason I emphasize that is there are fraudulent sites that are on social media or other that claim they will help you get your claim filed. I can't emphasize enough. Please don't do that. You're giving your critical information to people who are not working with us. And now you handed off your identity to somebody who is going to do who knows what with it and really not really help you.

Texas has had to enhance unemployment funding because of some federal guidance. Is filing those claims a different process?

It's not a different process. It's the same process for both the new group of individuals who have come on board because of the CARES Act, as well as individuals who are normally under the unemployment insurance system. Same process. Same application. We ask for different information for the self-employed or the contract employees, 10-99 employees. We're looking for your 2019 tax return with schedules. If you don't have that, don't worry. We're going to authorize the minimum, which is $207 plus the $600 [from the CARES Act]. And then when you get your tax return, send it to us and we will adjust it.

Does that additional $600 per week from the CARES Act count against the previously designated maximum possible?

It does not. It is on top of your unemployment benefits or your pandemic unemployment assistance. And that pandemic unemployment assistance is a new term for us, for everybody in the country, and that's the assistance to the self-employed and the contract employees that comes under the CARES Act. That additional compensation, that $600, is a fixed number. So, let's say that you qualify for $300 of unemployment insurance a week. On top of that, you get the $600.

What happens if you go back to work part time or start earning some income again?

Please report that income to us. We will adjust your unemployment insurance benefit accordingly. So, let's say the unemployment insurance benefit gets reduced down to $100. Well, then you get the $100 still with the full $600.

People continue to have problems making it into the TWC system to file a claim or get questions answered. What are you doing to try to fix that?

We're starting a new practice. We've been sort of experimenting with it on a limited basis. But we have a new practice of calling outbound. We know that there are several people who have submitted claims whether they are coming to us because of the CARES Act or are part of the regular unemployment insurance, but they somehow encountered a problem and they're having issues with that. Of course, our call centers are still getting bombarded with calls. We are regularly getting in excess of a million calls a day from individuals. In some cases – that's not a million people that need to file a claim. In some cases, it's people with questions. It's people that have some issue with their claim. And in some cases, and I completely understand, it's people that – they've gotten everything, they've filed their claim, they’ve requested payment, we’ve told them, 'you're going to get a check on this day, here's how much' – they're just calling to make sure everything is OK. And I understand that. But at any rate, for those people that we know that you've already filed something, but you're having some difficulty or you're showing a zero, we're going to start calling outbound in a really big way and reaching out to individuals to contact them instead of them constantly trying to contact us. You can still try to contact us. That's OK. But we're going to be outbound calling and contacting people to get these issues resolved.

What if you can’t remember your old login or PIN from the last time you filed for unemployment??

That's another group of people that we've started outbound calling. The other things that we've done is we have we've gone in and basically reset anything that's older than four years old. And you didn't have a recent claim. We just automatically reset it. So you’re starting fresh. We’ve had some other scenarios where people were having problems. They've locked themselves out. We know that they're locked out. We understand who those individuals are. And we've been calling them helping them reset claims. We have a lot of volunteers that are helping us from other state agencies, in particular the Texas Legislature, the House and Senate. And they've been calling people. And internally, we reassigned a lot of staff not to work on the phone centers, but to help in other areas, do some research on open issues or the case we just were talking about or are talking about calling people to say, let me help you reset your PIN and password and they reset it and then they kind of get off the phone so that those individuals can privately answer their security questions and get a new PIN or a new password.

How old is the TWC claims computer system?

This a mainframe based system. It was probably developed in the early 1990s. Now we have made improvements and we have enhanced it over the years. We haven't just let it sit with its old configuration. But it's still a mainframe system. Now, when you log on to our we site and you access the unemployment benefits system, or UBS, that's web-based, and that web base is sitting as a front-end. But, ultimately, it gets to this mainframe system. We were, in fact, in negotiations to replace that system, to begin the process, to replace it. Now, granted, that's a two to three-year project and this is a massive system. But all that got put on hold so we could focus on the big fire, which was this COVID emergency. But, yes sir, it's an old system. We appreciate the frustration that individuals have, but we also appreciate their patience and understanding. A lot of times when we talk to individuals, they, of course, express their frustration to us. But then they're very grateful and express that gratitude that they got the help that they needed. And they're kind of moving on.

Is the TWC system based on COBOL (a programming language from the 1950s)? And is that part of the problem? Why is TWC hiring COBOL programmers?

It is an old system based on COBOL and some other old languages. We have a lot of qualified people, but at the same time, during an emergency you need sort of all hands-on deck on as many hands as you can get. We've had a lot of good help from people that we've hired and from vendors who are helping us work on that system. Now I have to admit the system itself is not collapsing or falling apart. What we need those people to do is to help us make changes to that system to accommodate the requirements of the CARES Act.

What will you be asking from lawmakers for the next legislative session?

The Legislature was very supportive this past session and they gave us authorization for funding to replace this system. So, we have that in place already. And we were literally in the middle of negotiations with vendors. We had put a request for offer out – a bid document out. We had evaluated it and we were narrowing it down. So, the Legislature was very supportive last session. We’ll have to see what comes out of this if there's anything else that we need. But we think that with what we got last session and where we were at. We're going to continue to move forward to get that done.

Do you get a sense that the number of claims started to taper off?

I almost hate to say this because I'm going to jinx myself. We're just seeing a little bit of a decline. I'm not going to say that it's a major decline, because for all I know, tomorrow we'll see a big spike because I said, 'yes, we're seeing the decline.' Because we still have the oilfield workers that more and more of them are getting laid off in large numbers that need to come into the system. And we're opening up the economy. More employers are reemploying their staff or employing new staff. And as that progresses, we'll see some changes. You know, I got asked here not too long ago, 'when do you think you'll see a major downward trend?' And I don't know, because of the factors of the oil field workers coming in, the economy opening up and all the other kind of moving parts. We're seeing a little bit of a downtick, but we're not even cautiously optimistic yet. We're a little bit too gun-shy. We're not we're not letting up our efforts at all in getting people the support that they need just because maybe there's been a day or two of a little bit of a downtick.

Do you have a backlog that you're having to go through at the same time as you're taking in these claims?

Yes sir, we do. We call those assignments because what happens is someone will submit a claim, but it's incomplete. And we'll need to reach out to them to get that claim complete. Let's say that someone submitted their claim and their last name doesn't match what we have on file because we have information for all employees and employers, et cetera, because maybe they got married or maybe they, unfortunately, got a divorce or some other situation where their name doesn't match. So, we have a little bit of a backlog there. We're working through that backlog, again, with the outbound calls. And, individuals that see that their claim is hung up. We tell them, 'hey, look, there's a problem with your claim.' They're trying to contact us as well. So, between them trying to contact us and us trying to contact them, we've had some pretty good success with working through that backlog. We've shifted over a whole bunch of people from inside the agency to work that backlog, in particular, about 300 people from one of the other divisions. And they're focusing on those kinds of things, like the name discrepancy and are being very successful at getting those things worked down. So, there's a backlog from the perspective of what we know. Now, there's probably a backlog – and we're trying to get a handle on that – of what we don't know yet. You know, how many people are out there that still need to file that initial claim? We know that they're out there. We don't think that the number is as great as it used to be. But then again, we still have, and I know I sound like a broken record again, but we still have the oilfield employees, people affected. Sometimes you're not even an oilfield worker, but you work in an industry that's affiliated with it. Let’s say a restaurant or a store in a small town that ends up being affected. So, we know that that's out there, too.

Are you seeing any patterns in unemployment claims that maybe seem unexpected or surprising?

Not unexpected. You know, the top five – and they kind of change places – and it's going to start changing again because of the reopening of the economy. We hope. But were food services, retail. Actually, health care assistance. And transportation, you think about airlines, public transportation, buses, et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, we saw those as  some of the top ones that we’re always seeing at the top of the list. They shift places every now and then where one week maybe it's food services and the next week, maybe it's retail. What we see kind of working its way up the chart pretty quick, so to speak, are what we describe as 'construction and extraction' – which would be oilfield and those related kind of kind of fields. So those are the patterns. We look at it in very broad categories, generally speaking, but those are kind of the ones that stand out significantly. We are also seeing more high-tech that are getting affected or office workers that are affected. They're in the top 10 as well.

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