According to Serna, on an average day the TWC’s four call centers statewide receive 13,000-14,000 calls; on March 22, the agency received 100,000 calls regarding unemployment insurance benefit inquiries.
“We are very familiar with dealing with emergency situations—Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Rita, in the past; ice storms in north Texas, flooding in south Texas, wildfires in other various parts of Texas,” Serna said during the Facebook Live event. “The unique situation, which we’re presented with, with regard to COVID-19, is different than anything anybody in the state has dealt with, with regard to the sheer magnitude of the problem.”
While the agency is still tallying the number of unemployment insurance claims filed thus far in March, Serna said in the week prior to March 25, at least 150,000 claims had been filed. Additionally, Serna said the number of people trying to get through to the agency’s four call centers is in excess of 800,000.
To keep up with the sheer number of inquiries both online and by phone the agency is receiving, Serna said the TWC has made several changes to its daily operations, including transferring staff from other departments to the call centers and hiring an additional 100 temporary employees.
Additionally, Serna said the TWC is working with its phone service provider and information technology department to increase capacity for both calls and website inquiries.
“We’re pulling out all the stops—nothing is off the table with regard to what we’re doing to improve our service and to make sure that we can get to your calls,” Serna said. “The way things are panning out, there are more and more and more people affected by [the coronavirus]. ... It’s an exponential increase. ... It’s almost vertical.”
The TWC has also expanded its call center hours to Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., which will begin March 28. To file an unemployment insurance claim with TWC, call 800-939-6631 or click here.
To make the system less harrowing for individuals to navigate during the coronavirus pandemic, Serna said the TWC has also made several changes with regard to regulations for those with unemployment benefits. Some of those changes include the elimination of the work search requirement, meaning beneficiaries no longer have to prove to the TWC that they are actively searching for a job, as well as the suspension of the weeklong waiting period.
“We know that it is very frustrating, and it is also, at times, very scary for individuals who have been let go from work, often times for the first time,” Serna said. “I assure you that we will help everyone that needs help. I know it is hard to hear this, but I ask that you have just a little bit of patience with us.”
Serna said the commission also opted earlier this week to defer any collections until the coronavirus pandemic has passed.
“If you had unemployment insurance benefits from us in the past and somehow you were overpaid and you have a debt to the unemployment insurance system, normally we would deduct that debt from any benefits that you receive until the debt is paid off,” Serna said. “If you have any outstanding debt to the unemployment insurance benefits system and you apply for benefits and receive benefits, we will not be deducting any of those debts until this crisis is passed.”
Room for improvement
While Serna said the TWC was doing everything in its abilities to increase capacity, he added help from the federal government would be necessary to address some of the holes in the current unemployment benefits system.
For instance, Serna said there are no provisions for increasing the 26-week period currently allotted for an individual to receive benefits.
“I know that there’s work being done now in the Senate and in Congress that will go to the president to address, perhaps, some of these issues but as of right now, there are no provisions available to us where we could extend the 26-week provision,” Serna said. “So if your benefits are expiring and you’ve been on, unfortunately, unemployment insurance for the past 26 weeks or near the past 26 weeks, we have no provision at the current time to be able to extend those.”
Additionally, while individuals who are self-employed or are contract employees are unable to apply for unemployment insurance benefits at this time, Serna said there are bills at the federal level that could provide assistance for those individuals as well.
As the number of unemployment insurance claims continue to rise, along with the number of positive coronavirus cases statewide, Serna said he was confident every Texan in need of benefits would receive assistance.
“There’s enough funding now, and if necessary, we will seek additional funding from the federal government to ensure that everybody that needs benefits gets benefits,” he said. “That is not one of the things you need to worry about—running out of funding and us not being able to get you funding. There are funds there now, and as we deplete it, we will turn to other sources to make sure that the individuals who need help, get the help that they need.”