Since March 14, the Texas Workforce Commission has helped more than 1.2 million Texans apply for unemployment benefits, said Cisco Gamez, TWC media and public relations specialist, in a Facebook Live event April 15.

"That's a year and a half of claims in just a month's time," he said.

Of those 1.2 million applicants, Gamez said just over half have begun requesting payment, with TWC having paid out just over $400 million in benefits. Gamez added one of the biggest issues TWC is having right now is new claimants not requesting benefit payments.

"If they’re not doing that, we’re not able to pay them, and we want to help them," Gamez said. "We don’t need them to just apply for unemployment insurance; we need them to request payment, and they should be doing that every two weeks on their designated filing date or on open filing days, which is Thursday through Saturday. Even if they haven’t received payments yet, they should continue to request payments to speed that process up."

This week was TWC's biggest benefit payout week thus far, Gamez said, as the agency began issuing the additional $600 payments with unemployment benefit payments April 13.

"This week, we saw the largest amount of benefits being paid on Monday, April 13 at $183 million in benefits paid out to 137,000 claimants," he said. "Last week, on April 6, we [paid out] $41 million to 64,000 claimants."

Based on the most recent TWC data, a total of 277,714 unemployment claims were filed in the week ending April 4; by comparison, only 13,108 claims were filed that same week in 2019.

Based on the data from the 16 counties Community Impact Newspaper covers in Texas, the Austin metropolitan area saw an increase from 919 claims filed the week of April 4, 2019, to 24,558 the same week in 2020. Likewise, the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area experienced a year-over-year increase from 3,099 claims in 2019 to 72,228 claims in 2020, while the Houston metropolitan area's number of claims rose from 3,571 in 2019 to 74,810 in 2020.

The retail industry continues to be the hardest-hit sector, with 49,236 unemployment claims filed in the week ending April 4, followed by the accommodation and food services sector, with 44,415 claims.

Although Gamez said 90% of unemployment claims are filed online, TWC is in the process of significantly expanding its call center capacity in hopes of shortening wait times and assisting more callers. Gamez said the agency has already expanded from four to six call centers since the coronavirus pandemic hit Texas in early March, with plans of adding two more next week.

"Week to week, we are seeing a decline in the number of calls," Gamez said. "On April 6, we had 3 million calls in a single day; on April 13, we received 2 million calls."

Additionally, TWC has expanded its call centers to be open seven days a week from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. and added roughly 1,000 call-takers to handle the increased call volume. To shorten call wait times, the agency also suggests using the following schedule if applying for benefits online is not an option:

  • Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m.-noon: area code starts with 9

  • Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1-5 p.m.: area code starts with 3, 4, 5 or 6

  • Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m.-noon: area code starts with 7 or 8

  • Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-5 p.m.: area code starts with 2

Gamez also said that if qualified applicants are unable to apply by a certain deadline, there is no penalty, as the TWC understands call volumes are high.

"We’ve gotten some messages that [claimants] are frustrated because they’re having trouble getting through on the phone lines," Gamez said. "Everyone that is qualified will receive benefits. And in fact, it won’t be just from the date that they apply for benefits, but we’re going to backdate that as far back as March 8—from the time that they stopped working, had reduced hours, were furloughed or laid off."

TWC updates

In addition to the most recent data release, Gamez also said this week the TWC approved measures to help child care providers that are open during the coronavirus pandemic by increasing supplemental payments by 25% based on referrals.

"So if you are a child care center and you are open right now and you want to work with the Texas Workforce Commission, you can find information on our website to participate in that," Gamez said. "And if you are an essential worker and you are looking for a child care [center], you can also visit our website and find a place near you that can help you."

Gamez said programming for the unemployment benefits system is now complete for pandemic unemployment assistance, meaning self-employed individuals and independent contractors can now apply for unemployment benefits and request payments.

As a final reminder, Gamez said those who are applying for regular unemployment benefits need only their Social Security number and home address; those who are self-employed or independent contractors will need to fax, email or mail their 2019 1040 IRS form to the TWC by Dec. 26.

To file for unemployment benefits with TWC, call 800-939-6631 or click here. Assistance is available in both English and Spanish.