State of Texas: Unanswered calls keep some Texans denied unemployment from making appeals

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Somehow, Shereda Rawls has managed six months without a paycheck. Rawls lost her job in March then went on unemployment. But her unemployment payments stopped almost as soon as they started.

Rawls said her employer filed an appeal with the Texas Workforce Commission, claiming she shouldn’t be qualified for unemployment benefits, and the employer’s account shouldn’t be deducted because of it.

Shereda Rawls shows her TWC account showing the agency’s hearing officer found she was owed unemployment benefits in a July 3, 2020 hearing. Rawls had still not received payment in this Sept. 8, 2020 interview. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

The appeal filing stopped her payments.

Then, both sides waited for the TWC, which oversees unemployment claims in the state, to schedule an appeal hearing with a hearing officer. It took the TWC another 90 days to hear the appeal. On July 3, Rawls’ online TWC account showed she won her appeal and the unemployment payments could continue.

“How much money have you received since July?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Rawl.

“Zero dollars,” Rawls said. “Not one check.”  

“There are people out here who have children who are not making ends meet, and I think they should be more considerate in the way that they’re handling people’s claims,” Rawls said. “Some people’s lives depend on it.”

She’s also spent most days calling the TWC’s call centers, trying to find out why her payments haven’t continued. Her calls start at 7 a.m. and end when the centers close at 7 p.m., she said.

“It makes it seem like they don’t care that people have children out here, and they don’t have the things they need,” Rawls said, as she described her “anger” over never being able to reach a TWC staffer with credentials to help restart her payments.

Rawls has gotten through to the call center a few times since July. Both times she said the call was answered by one of the TWC’s contractors hired to help file initial unemployment applications. Rawls said the contracted call takers have told her they are not able to handle problems that don’t have to do with initial unemployment claims.

“You’re actually looking at unemployment saying they never received an appeal from me,” Felicia Armstrong said as she pulled out her cell phone and opened her online TWC account.

Armstrong’s account didn’t show any confirmation that she had filed an appeal on June 15, which would allow her to prove to the TWC that she should qualify for unemployment benefits.

“We do not have an appeal on record for you,” the TWC’s message in her account stated. “If you recently filed an appeal, allow three weeks for us to record it.”

“It’s been way longer than three weeks,” Armstrong said. When KXAN interviewed Armstrong at her home in San Antonio on Sept. 8, over 12 weeks had passed without TWC scheduling a hearing.

On Sept. 8, Felicia Armstrong accessed her online TWC account to show that her June 15 appeal filing still did not have a date assigned to be heard (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

The morning we interviewed her, the TWC sent an email to Armstrong telling her the commission was working on appeals filed in early May, which was now 16 weeks ago. Other individuals experiencing problems with their unemployment claims said they were told by TWC staff that some appeals were delayed 18 weeks.

Armstrong estimated it would be around Christmas before she’d get a hearing date and a chance to plead to have her unemployment claim approved.

It typically takes between six to eight weeks for an appeal to be heard, according to the TWC’s website.

KXAN filed a Texas Public Information Act request with the TWC on July 20 for records related to unemployment insurance appeals. We wanted to know how long it’s taking the state to process appeals – and whether every appeal filed was getting a hearing date.

The TWC did not respond to the records request until August 7, days past the 10-day deadline for a response allowed by law. We filed a formal complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office against the TWC, alleging a violation of the state’s open records law.

That complaint is still pending.

The TWC data showed that by mid-August the number of appeals in 2020 nearly equaled the total number of appeals filed in all of 2019. Through mid-August, 100,190 cases had been appealed to the TWC. In 2019, the number of appealed cases for the entire year was 107,809.

There are two levels of appeals once the TWC makes a decision on whether a claimant qualifies for benefits: the appeals tribunal and the commission appeal.

Either the unemployed worker or the worker’s employer can file an appeal, and the initial appeal is filed with the appeals tribunal. At the appeals tribunal, a hearing officer decides who wins: the worker or the employer. If either side disagrees with the appeals tribunal’s decision, they can appeal to the commission.

TWC records show the average number of days from an appeal filing to a tribunal hearing being set was 32 days in 2019. That number climbed to 57 days by mid-August of this year.

Appeals filed at the commission-level take longer.

Our analysis of the state’s 2019 appeal records shows it took an average of 132 days for commission appeals to be heard. In 2020, that time increased to 168 days, on average.

Meanwhile, as the number of appeals skyrocketed in 2020 due to the pandemic, the number of TWC appeal hearing officers dropped to its lowest level since 2015, when there were 106 hearing officers.

The TWC’s roster now shows just 83 officers, a 21% reduction over the past five years, according to online TWC records.

We requested an interview with TWC Executive Director Ed Serna to explain the appeals process and how the agency is handling the growing backlog in appeals. Serna would not agree to schedule an interview to discuss the appeals “due to his schedule,” Margaret Hession, TWC’s director of communications wrote in a Sept. 9 email to KXAN.

We were able to at least question the agency’s three commissioners during an August 20 virtual meeting. When asked about the appeals backlog, none of three TWC commissioners responded. But, days later, Chairman Bryan Daniel sent KXAN a letter providing a response to our questions concerning the delays in hearing appeals.

“With the exponential increase in claims, the number of appeals has increased in a corresponding manner. TWC has experienced a 1,500 percent increase in the number of appeals filed weekly…The current timeframe to process an appeal is 45-60 days. This represents a 150% increase from this time last year.”

TEXAS WORKFORCE COMMISSION CHARIMAN BRYAN DANIEL

Gov. Greg Abbott holds oversight authority over the TWC, and he appoints its three-member board. We initially requested an interview with Abbott on August 10 and several more times since then. Abbott has never responded to any of our requests for interviews about the problems we’ve highlighted with the performance of the TWC during the pandemic.

On July 20, KXAN submitted to TWC a list of 111 people who contacted us with complaints about not being able to get through to the agency to resolve unemployment filing issues.

Many of the people who contacted us detailed stories of thousands of attempts to reach the TWC’s call centers on the only toll-free number the agency published.

Within days the TWC reported contacting nearly every person on that list and helping them correct their unemployment problems.

After that report, more than 500 additional people, who had similar concerns to the initial 111 individuals, contacted KXAN asking for assistance with the TWC.

Last week, KXAN submitted a list of 547 names to the TWC. Multiple people on that list reported being contacted by the TWC within a day and having their unemployment benefits unlocked and deposited into their bank accounts.

Both Armstrong and Rawls said they hoped their last “desperate” attempt to make contact with the TWC works.

“Reaching out to the TV station is as far as we’ve got now,” Armstrong told KXAN. “It’s unheard of, but hopefully it makes a difference.”

TWC tracking mistaken unemployment payments

He’d just finished his shift when he got home and ripped open a letter from the Texas Workforce Commission. Just seconds before, Jonah Hernandez had no idea that he’d apparently applied for unemployment and got $1,460 from the Texas Workforce Commission.

Except, he’s never applied for benefits and hasn’t been unemployed during the pandemic.

“It never hit my bank account,” Hernandez said of the supposed $1,460 deposit. “I’ve got the statements to show from the time that they claim this was issued, which was back in July, until all the way now, nothing shows that I got that extra $1,400 in my account.”

Hernandez’s documents show the TWC first notified him of what the agency calls an “overpayment” in a letter dated July 15. That’s when he said he immediately picked up the phone and started calling the toll-free number posted on the TWC’s website and on the letters.  

Jonah Hernandez got an overpayment letter where the TWC claims he got $1,460 in benefits. Hernandez said his bank records prove he never received a dime and that he never applied for benefits (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I try calling, immediately get hit with a message that there’s too many calls coming in, we can’t, you know—too bad,” Hernandez said. Those calls were supplemented with emails to multiple TWC divisions but were never answered, he said.

“Then another month went by, and I got a second letter, this one a little bit more threatening than the last, and it’s the same bill essentially that I still owe this much money.”

The second letter warned Hernandez that his account would be turned over to collections if he failed to respond to the TWC.

Although, like more than 600 other unemployed Texans who contacted KXAN after never getting through to the TWC, Hernandez said he was making daily calls that were never answered.

“It did make me freak out a little bit more, because I have been emailing constantly, calling every day; we’re talking like five emails in a day and nothing—no reply, nothing. It just felt hopeless. I either take care of this by paying money I never got to begin with or have the consequences of having it sent to a collections agency, messing up my credit. It was pretty threatening in that way.”

Hernandez was one of the 510 names we submitted to the TWC on Sept. 8. The agency promised to call each of the people on that list to fix their unemployment troubles. Hernandez said he got a call from an El Paso area code just two days later on Sept. 10 but missed the early morning call.

The TWC sent him an email telling him they tried to contact him and would try to call him again. When we interviewed Hernandez on Sept. 15, his call log does not show any missed calls from any number connected to the TWC or that El Paso area code.

We asked Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna for an interview for this report. Serna’s press office said Serna “…was unavailable to do an interview due to his schedule.” Instead of the interview, the agency asked for questions to be answered during a planned Facebook live set for 2 p.m. on Sept. 15.

TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez told the public in this Sept. 15 pre-recorded statement that the TWC had paid out $203M in benefits it should not have paid out (Courtesy of TWC via Facebook)

The agency decided to cancel the live stream where unemployed Texans could have a chance to question the TWC and opted to post a pre-recorded video answering some of the points we asked to have answered concerning overpayments.

“You must repay those benefits, even if the overpayments were not your fault,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez said in the video. Gamez revealed the agency had paid 185,000 Texans $203 million dollars in unemployment benefits “that you were not eligible to receive,” the video shows.

The debt, as the TWC called it, will follow the debtor for life.

“State law requires TWC to recover all unemployment benefits overpayments. There is no statute of limitations on debts owed to the state and TWC cannot forgive or dismiss the overpayments, and there is no exception for hardships,” Gamez said.

The agency also took no responsibility for allowing the overpayments, which have reduced the state’s unemployment account by $203 million since mid-March, to happen in the first place. We asked the TWC why a sufficient investigation could not be performed when the agency initially determines whether someone qualifies for benefits. Gamez said federal rules require state unemployment agencies to act quickly when an unemployment claim is filed.

“Federal regulations and Supreme Court cases require that state unemployment insurance agencies quickly pay unemployment insurance benefits when due,” Gamez said. That deadline gives the TWC three weeks to investigate and determine whether the person filing for benefits is truly qualified to receive them.

The TWC has to rely on the information from the claimant when a claim is filed, then the agency contacts the employer to verify the information before determining whether the claimant qualifies for unemployment and their monthly benefit. Sometimes the TWC can’t get that done within the 21 day deadline, Games said.

The TWC initially notified Jonah Hernandez of the overpayment in July and demanded he repay the $1,460 by July 25. Hernandez said he’s tried calling the agency and emailing daily and never got a response (KXAN/Jody Barr)

None of that does people like Jonah Hernandez any good since he can’t get anyone on the phone to help him understand where that $1,460 check went.

“Unfortunately, that means that subsequent information received by TWC changes the outcome of the initial decision, which results in an overpayment of benefits,” Gamez said in the recorded statement. “The bottom line is that our priority is to pay eligible individuals as quickly as possible. If we waited until all the information was completely verified, it would not meet federal guidelines.”

“You see how much money they’ve misplaced or lost as they put it, and it makes it unfair that I’ve got cases here that I’ve got money they want me to pay back that I never got, because I never filed for unemployment. And then I hear about people who haven’t even gotten money yet who have applied for unemployment and are being withheld, because they’re not eligible, and it seems like it’s a whole mess now,” Hernandez told KXAN.

“If I could get just one conversation or someone pointing me in the general direction of who do I need to contact instead of contacting everybody, that would be some sort of help, but it’s all kind of the same: either you know what to do or not,” he said. “It just seems unfair that I don’t get to voice my side of what’s going on, how do I need to take care of this—it just feels like bullying quite honestly because of the situation I’ve been handed with this.”

Busy signals delay Texas nurses from getting licenses

The Texas Board of Nursing said it’s ramping up its staff to process more applications as nurses face delays when trying to apply for their initial license, renewals and transfers.

“Whenever you call, it’s unreachable. Nobody picks up or anything,” nursing student Lhakpa Dolma Lama explained.

She’s been applying for her license to take her first NCLEX exam with TBON since June.

“And I’ve emailed them like probably more than 10 times,” she said.

TBON Director of Operations Mark Majek said the board has received a spike in applications and a major increase in calls. He said the staff of eight working to answer those calls usually handles about 4,000 a month, but since May, those calls have nearly doubled.

“So that in itself has been a challenge for us,” Majek said.

He explained the board is usually able to hire extra staff during times of peak applications, like in May around graduation time. But this year, because the governor ordered state agencies to slash their budgets by 5%, the funding for the extra staff was cut.

“And beside that is the emails to the agency have tripled. So all that volume is what’s bottle necking the ability to get through the phones,” Majek said.

He explained the board is mainly focused on processing applications, rather than answering more calls.

Nurse Allen Harris in Louisiana has been trying to get his license transferred to Texas from Louisiana since May.

“I am understanding to the fact of we have COVID going on, and people are backed up a lot, I totally get that, but it’s, you know, after multiple emails and calling a number, and we’re in September now, I’ve been at this process for a while,” Harris said.

The board did extend the queue for those who call in and get placed on hold from about 20 to 40 people, but it quickly fills up at the beginning of the day.

“The queue constantly stays that way, pretty much the whole day. And at the end, if you can’t get through, then it will give you a busy signal or will not let you in,” Majek said.

He added the best way to contact the board is with a single, detailed email. Majek said the board is working to add more staff to process the large amount of applications now.

“We’re going to put some more staff on these, the processing part now, we’re going to be hiring a few more staff, even though we still have the cuts, we’re going to go ahead and still hire them now and get them trained to get this going faster,” Majek said.

Governor allows some Texas businesses to operate closer to capacity

Businesses across much of Texas will be allowed to expand capacity restrictions starting as early as Sept. 21, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday.

For the state’s 19 hospital regions where coronavirus hospitalizations are less than 15%, industries that were limited to 50% capacity may now expand to 75% capacity starting Sept. 21, including all retail stores, all restaurants, all office buildings, all manufacturing, all museums and libraries, and all gyms.

Hospitals in those regions may return to ordinary elective surgical procedures immediately, Abbott also said.

Starting Sept. 24, Abbott said all nursing home facilities, assisted living centers, state supported living centers, and other long-term care facilities are allowed to reopen for visitation, providing that they comply with certain health protocols, and there must not be a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. All of those facilities are now allowed to offer essential caregiver visits, he said.

“Texans have shown that we can address both the health and safety concerns of COVID, while also taking carefully measured steps to restore the livelihoods that Texas desperately need,” Gov. Abbott said.

Abbott indicated bars are “nationally recognized” as COVID-19 spreading locations, and will not be allowed to reopen at this time. He acknowledged that the state is focused on finding ways to get them open. Leaders have been working with bar owners and associations on methods of reopening, and “some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said.

“The fact is COVID does still exist, and most Texans remain susceptible,” Gov. Abbott said. “If we fully reopen Texas without limits, without safe practices, it could lead to an unsustainable increase in COVID that would require the possibility of being forces to ratchet back down.”

Abbott said the metric he’s relying most heavily on is hospitalizations. Medical experts have warned about increased spread in regions where 15% or more of hospitalizations are coronavirus-related.

“Hospitalizations is the most important information about the severity of COVID-19 in any particular region,” Gov. Abbott said. “It is also the most accurate information available on a regular basis.”COVID-19 dashboards for Austin, Travis County, Texas and the world 

If a region experiences less than 15% of all hospitalizations being coronavirus-related for seven consecutive days, then the region is safe enough to allow additional openings, Abbott said.

All Texas regions, except Victoria, Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley have COVID-19 hospitalizations less than 15%, according to data provided by the Governor’s office.

Abbott said the spread of COVID-19 has steadily and significantly declined, and the hospitalizations have been cut by more than two-thirds. The number of active cases has been cut in half, he said, and the number of people recovering from the virus continues to increase.

The Texas Democratic party criticized Abbott’s moves toward reopening in a statement, calling the previous reporting system “flawed” and expressing concerns about a surge in cases following previous reopening efforts.

“Now, after months of being lied to, the governor wants local leaders and Texans to trust him. He wants them to believe it is safe to reopen their businesses and go back to work without good information to keep their employees or customers safe,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “Texas needs leaders they can rely on and leaders they can trust.”

On Monday, the Texas Department of State Health Services changed the way it reports the state’s positivity rate, adding two additional rates to help it more accurately track the number of cases. The original method served as a “reliable proxy” for most of the pandemic, but became less reliable in August when a surge in backlogged cases was reported. This caused new cases and new test results to get out of sync, DSHS said.

Texas is scheduled to receive millions of 15-minute tests per month that will more quickly notify people if they are infected with COVID-19, Abbott said in the press conference.

The biggest reason for the improvements in Texas, doctors advised Abbott, is because Texans are taking COVID-19 seriously. The best practices that leaders have put in place, including social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, are the best defense against the virus until vaccines are available.

“As we go about the process of continuing to contain COVID, we will also continue to work to open up Texas,” Abbott said.

COVID data taken out of context fuels calls to lift restrictions

Nearly every post from Gov. Abbott’s social media accounts receives a flurry of responses, many from Republicans, to reopen the Texas economy and end the statewide mask mandate. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican facing re-election in Texas’ 21st Congressional District, has routinely called to “#OpenTexas” on Twitter, as have several Republican state lawmakers.

“The majority of Republicans in Texas are not interested in pretending the coronavirus doesn’t exist, they just weigh the risks, and they weigh the cost of certain kinds of measures differently,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.TABC makes it easier for Texas bars to reopen as restaurants 

Some critics of Texas’ continued response to the pandemic, which Abbott has exclusively led, point to a Centers for Disease Control bulletin in August which said only 6% of COVID-19 fatalities were attributed to patients who didn’t have other health complications.

President Donald Trump shared a tweet that said the CDC “quietly” updated its COVID-19 numbers to admit that only 6% of COVID-19 fatalities were “actually” caused by COVID-19. The tweet was removed by Twitter for being misleading.

Dr. Mark Casanova, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force and the president of the Dallas County Medical Society, has heard repeated references to the “6%” statistic, which he said should not be labeled as a positive.

“It’s actually quite ominous that a full 6% had nothing more contributing to their loss of life than a COVID-19 infection,” Casanova said during an interview with KXAN.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Abbott, and other Republican lawmakers, are caught in a difficult position because of the president’s approach to the pandemic.

“Donald Trump doesn’t have responsibility for conditions on the ground in Texas in the same way that the governor or the legislators do,” Henson said.DSHS begins reporting new positive rate data to give “most accurate view” of COVID-19 in Texas 

Abbott, who is not on the ballot in November, faces pressure from some in the party that he leads.

Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who defied Abbott’s orders and is now running in the special election for Senate District 30, has been a vocal critic of the state’s response to the pandemic.

“That puts Abbott in a tough position, and it puts some of the legislators in a tough position vis-a-vis Trump versus Abbott and where they locate themselves going into a very tough election,” Henson said.

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