AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Sonya Wilson thought she had set her employees up for success to file unemployment claims as the pandemic forced her to furlough her staff at an Austin-area canine daycare, but she quickly discovered setbacks in the Texas Workforce Commission system.
“It was supposed to be so easy, all they had to do was just go in and fill out their claim and start collecting their money, and out of nine employees, I had one that was able to do that,” Wilson said.
“I did everything that I was supposed to do as far as the TWC instructed me to set everybody up for a mass layoff.”
Wilson, who has run her small business for nearly two decades in south Austin, has spent dozens of hours over three months attempting to get a hold of a person at the Texas Workforce Commission to help.
“Thirty hours a week we were spending, calling the number trying to get all of our employees on set up for unemployment,” she explained.
“They were not ready to answer the questions that people have, that couldn’t be answered on their website,” she said. “We got into the circle of call the number, get the prompt, the phone number hangs up on you, call again.”
With rent due for many people on the first of each month, Wilson has had sleepless nights worrying that her employees would not have the means to make critical payments.
“Rent is due today,” the small business owner said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s not helpful to our mental health, but the health of my employees to wonder whether they’re going to be able to pay rent or whether they’re going to get evicted, whether they’re going to get where their meals are going to come from.”
On Wednesday, the state’s high unemployment rates triggered additional weeks of extended benefits for claimants, which adds up to more than a year — a total of 59 weeks— of unemployment benefits for some Texans.
This week, TWC announced it would delay work search requirements with resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Texas.
Those requirements had been waived as the pandemic began, but were then reinstated by TWC only to be pulled again this week. Agency leadership will announce in late July whether those work search requirements to retain unemployment benefits will remain through the summer or be wiped.
“We know that you’re out there, we know that you are desperately needing to speak to somebody,” TWC Executive Director Ed Serna said in a Wednesday interview.
For Texans who had already been receiving unemployment benefits, then went back to work when Texas began to reopen, and were furloughed again during the state’s reopening rollback, Serna said the process for new benefits to kick in is shorter.
“From the last time you requested a payment from us, if you went more than three weeks, then you have to file an additional claim,” he said. “Just check out it’s a little drop down menu, check off laid off, don’t check off disaster, don’t check off anything else, just check off laid off.
“That’ll trigger for us that you were affected by what recently happened, and you will be handled in a priority fashion,” he explained. “Because you’re already in our system, we don’t have to go through all that validation that we went through before.”
“For those of y’all that were recently laid off, and it was within three weeks of when you last requested a payment from us, get in there and request your payment again, because you’re already you still active you’re still in the cycle,” he said.
Serna said between 1,800 and 2,000 TWC and contract workers are answering telephone queries, and the average wait time is 18 minutes, which is down from 26 minutes in April and 19 minutes in May.
TWC has also implemented an out-bound calling system to reach Texans for clarifications on claims.
“We went from being an agency that just took calls in to being an agency that calls folks out,” he said, adding that TWC is “probably not going to go away from that practice,” as he expects it to be a permanent change and not just a change during the pandemic.
TWC has also made upgrades to its chatbot, which can now handle more than 100 questions.
Wilson said TWC finally wrapped up the unemployment process for all of her employees over the weekend, after more than three months.
“We needed TWC to help us, and they have done a lot, but they haven’t done nearly as much as necessary,” Wilson said.
TWC has received more than three million unemployment claims, is paying benefits to 2.6 million Texans and has paid out over $16 billion in benefits — with $4 billion of that coming from the state and the remaining $12 billion coming from the federal government.
“You can you can still email me… and let me know if you’ve really been struggling to get to us,” Serna said.