With Texas Workforce Commission overwhelmed by surging unemployment claims, Central Texas residents try to hang on

The Texas Workforce Commission's phone and online systems to accept applications for unemployment benefits have been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Texans who are out of work and looking for assistance. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
The Texas Workforce Commission's phone and online systems to accept applications for unemployment benefits have been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Texans who are out of work and looking for assistance. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Texas Workforce Commission's phone and online systems to accept applications for unemployment benefits have been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Texans who are out of work and looking for assistance. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

Jeannie Miller just closed on her first home on March 19. Miller, a single parent of three boys, is self-employed, working in social services in the homes of families to help children on the autism spectrum.

Just days after she closed on that home in Lakeway, her contracts fell away as local schools canceled classes and governments instituted social distancing measures to keep residents safe from the spread of the coronavirus.

So Miller went to the Texas Workforce Commission’s website to file for unemployment. She said she received a link online to change her password and was directed to the TWC’s phone system to provide account details.

That phone system has been beset with calls lately—more than 1.7 million in a single 24-hour period on March 26, according to the TWC—and despite calling dozens of times per day, Miller still has not been able to get through.

"I’m frantic; I’m calling everybody. I’m leaving messages on Nextdoor; I’ve called every number, all the different departments to try to get a live person,” she said. “Right now I can’t apply for benefits. I can’t. What am I going to do?”

On April 2, the U.S. Department of Labor announced staggering unemployment claims in its weekly report. In the week ending March 28, more than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment—more than double the 3.3 million claims for the previous week—including 275,597 Texans.

According to Cisco Gamez, media and public relations specialist at the TWC, just over 700,000 Texans filed for unemployment benefits in all of 2019, a mark that will be surpassed in just over a month if this pace continues. On March 26, the TWC received 1.7 million calls in a 24-hour period.

“First and foremost, to those who have been laid off, are unsure about your employment situation or are worried for your business: we see you, we hear you and we are working around the clock to provide the resources and help that you need,” Gamez said in a written statement.

'At one point or another, you kind of give up'

Kristy Avila of Austin works at Paco’s Tacos in North Austin as a manager, where she said her hours have been cut to about five or ten per week due to the takeout-only restrictions put in place by the city and county governments on March 17.

Avila is eligible to receive benefits from the state’s Shared Work program, in which the TWC supplements employees' lost wages to help businesses weather a slowdown. Avila said she has been trying to get through on the phones and website—attempting to access the application at odd hours—but has not been able to get through.

Avila said she is starting to run out of hope, and after trying a couple times a day, she has focused her attention on finding help in the community to help her pay for essentials.

“I’m out of funds. I’m not going to have my rent. I’m barely making it on food,” Avila said.

Gamez said the TWC is putting all the possible resources it can toward the effort to process more claims. The commission has over 1,000 staff working on unemployment claims. It transferred 200 staff members from other departments to take claims, hired 100 more individuals to work call centers and is working to transfer over 250 additional staff members as of April 2, according to Gamez.

Additionally, new policies at the state and federal level have opened up more benefits to those filing for unemployment than were previously available. When the U.S. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Recovery Act on March 27, it allowed states to provide an additional $600 weekly payment to people receiving other unemployment benefits.

Additionally, TWC can now backdate unemployment benefits to either the Sunday before the applicant lost his or her job or March 8—whichever came later—thanks to an emergency order signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on March 13.

That means local residents hoping to get through to file their claim are not losing out on benefits when they run into a busy signal or a recorded message. Still, Nicole Romero-Piche of Kyle said it is hard not to lose hope.

Romero-Piche runs a tutoring business that also includes some field trips for students. She said she has lost or is expecting to lose deposits from 11 families—a big deal for a small business like hers—and she is grateful her spouse has a full-time position that is saving the family financially.

“I’m trying once a day at least, and at one point or another you kind of give up,” Romero-Piche said.

Not everyone has struggled to get through to the TWC. When Michael Vasquez of Cedar Park was furloughed from his position as a clinical research coordinator on March 27, the first thing he did was go to the unemployment website on his phone.

“My application was completed at 9:37 a.m., and I was told I was furloughed at 9:30 a.m.,” Vasquez said.

He submitted his first request for payment on April 5.

Locally, Workforce Solutions of the Capital Area can help residents or business owners who are trying to navigate the state unemployment system.

Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions, said on a webinar hosted by the West Austin Chamber of Commerce April 2 that while there are only two ways to access the TWC unemployment system—phone calls and the website—Workforce Solutions can help by providing information on Shared Work projects, opportunities for employees to acquire more skills, equipment purchases to facilitate telework, child care for essential employees and more.

Updated local numbers for unemployment claims will not be available until mid-April, but according to the TWC, there were 11,851 unemployment claims filed in the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area between March 1 and March 18, a 460% increase.

Yvonne Padgett, who lives in Cedar Park and was laid off from her job in sales on March 16, said she understands the staff at the TWC are doing the best they can. After initially failing to get through to the system despite calling “morning, noon and night,” Padgett was able to access the system online and request a payment March 29.

“I know they’re overwhelmed and stressed. I’m lucky where I’m in a good position where I have savings so I’m not panicked, but there are other people who are not that lucky,” Padgett said. “I know what that panic feels like; I have felt that panic many times. I really am worried about other people right now.”
By Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor of Community Impact Newspaper's Central Austin and Southwest Austin editions. He began his career as a sports reporter in Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in 2018. He grew up in Maine and graduated from Boston University, but prefers tacos al pastor to lobster rolls. You can get in touch at jflagler@communityimpact.com


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