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Texas Workforce Commission Confronts COVID-19 Crisis

Unemployment and underemployment are one of the biggest stressors for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who work in service, retail, and office support positions have been laid off as people shelter in place. All of these workers are encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits.

Ed Serna, executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission, spoke on Facebook Live to address the needs of this burgeoning group on March 25. 

“Our goal is to serve our neighbors, the citizens of the State of Texas, as aptly as we can,” Serna said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with very unique challenges and problems. First of all, because of the severity and the magnitude of the issue. Second, the broad nature of the situation.

“We are very used to dealing with disasters, including hurricanes and other weather events. The unique situation we are presented with in COVID-19 is different from anything we have ever dealt with in the state, due to the magnitude and the very pervasive nature of the problem.” 

Before the pandemic and subsequent social distancing, the Texas Workforce Commission processed about 3,000 claims a week for the entire state. The first week of March that number jumped to 9,000. The second week there were about 150,000 claims. Between March 29 and April 4, the commission processed over 257,000 claims. This increase in volume is difficult for the current computer and phone system to support.

“It is an exponential increase,” Serna said. “We are constantly working to meet the needs of the community, and we appreciate the patience of the community.”

The commission has increased the staff at the call center, including moving people from other departments to help cover the increase in calls and hiring 100 temporary staff members. Additionally, the staff are increasing the hours the call center receives calls, including adding Saturday hours. The IT department is working with the telephone contractor to better support the influx of calls. Currently the call center is open Monday thru Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Additionally, people can apply for benefits online. Volume on the website is higher as well, and not everyone has the information to file online, but according to Serna this is a faster way to file a claim. The Texas Workforce Commission has increased the server capacity and number of servers to be able to process more online claims.

“The IT staff is working around the clock to address this increase,” Serna said. “We are working with the Department of Information Resources to make the changes we need quickly and effectively.”

According to the website, the claim system is available 24 hours a day. Most people use it during the daytime, so applying between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. is recommended.

The Workforce Commission has also changed the requirements one must meet to receive unemployment payments.

“We have eliminated the work search requirement,” Serna said. “If you are unemployed, normally you have to prove you are looking for a job, but you do not have to do that right now. We have also suspended the one week waiting period. Additionally, if you were somehow overpaid in the past and owe a debt to the Texas Workforce Commission, you will not have to pay that back during this crisis period.

“There is enough funding to provide the benefits for all the people who qualify for benefits. There are funds now, and as we deplete that funding, we will turn to the Federal Government for additional funding if we need to increase that pool of money. People have enough to worry about and do not need to worry about this resource. We will continue to provide for the people of Texas who need this benefit.

“I know this is a trying time and several of you are frustrated and justifiably so. We have a great deal of understanding. We work in your communities. We live in your communities and see the impact of COVID-19. We are working hard to meet your needs. We appreciate your understanding and patience.”

Additional information and resources for applying for unemployment insurance benefits can be found on their website https://www.twc.texas.gov/.