Thousands in Texas face delays to their unemployment relief because of busy phone lines and website outages

By Carrington Tatum and Clare Proctor, The Texas Tribune

As tens of thousands of Texans try to file unemployment insurance claims, they’re finding the Texas Workforce Commission’s phone lines jammed and website servers overloaded as the agency is swamped by the crush of sudden need.

Kerbey Lane Cafe’s dining room remains empty during the coronavirus pandemic. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune)

Until last month, Ted Stanford of McKinney was a programmer for a Nebraska-based software company providing voting machines for Collin County’s runoff primary elections. But after Gov. Greg Abbott delayed those elections during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Stanford said his company laid off him and eight of his coworkers.

The 67-year-old received unemployment benefits years ago. So when he tried to file a new claim online after last month’s layoff, he was required to enter a PIN he couldn’t remember.

“At that point, it says call the unemployment office,” he said. “I bet I’ve called 50 times this morning, and I just keep getting a busy signal.”

That signal has become a familiar sound to Stanford and a historic number of Texans whose incomes were lost, cut or threatened as sweeping orders meant to prevent the virus’ dangerous spread uprooted household finances, entire industries and the economy as a whole. Yet as tens of thousands of Texans try to file unemployment insurance claims, they’re finding the Texas Workforce Commission’s phone lines jammed and website servers overloaded as the agency is swamped by the crush of sudden need.

State officials recognize the problems and are scurrying to fix them. Normally, the commission receives between 13,000 and 20,000 calls to its 800 number on an average day. Last week, however, that number surpassed 1.5 million calls received in a 24-hour period, said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the commission.

Not all of these calls reflect individual people calling to file a new unemployment claim since some people might be calling to check on their application status.

“Just know that you’re not going to be denied your claim just because you’re having a hard time getting through,” Abbott said at a press conference Tuesday.

But those assurances — and state leaders’ scramble to beef up servers and increase staffing — are doing little to appease the anxiety of Texans who face mounting bills and housing payments, which were due Wednesday for most renters.

Last week, TWC repurposed 200 current employees from another department to help take claims. State Rep. Erin Zwiener said the agency told lawmakers Wednesday it plans to transfer 250 more. Zwiener said that TWC is also partnering with two private call centers to add up to 350 additional operators.

“We’re trying to be fluid,” Gamez told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday. “We’re hiring to meet the demand.”

But many Texans who are eventually getting through say that their claims are being denied after being processed through a set of parameters that haven’t caught up to the myriad new circumstances people now face in a pandemic that has changed virtually every aspect of life and the Texas economy in a matter of weeks.

Melanie Adams, an immune-comprised 49-year-old in Fort Worth, had a string of chronic health emergencies that prevented her from working last year. But she finally secured a job as a cookware retailer at Williams-Sonoma where she worked for five months before the company, like many retailers, laid off a large swath of its workforce.

She immediately started applying for unemployment and found a trick to avoiding the crashing website: File at 3 a.m.

Adams said TWC responded swiftly — with a denial. TWC said she did not qualify for benefits because she didn’t work enough prior to the health disaster.

“I was dealing with chronic health issues,” Adams said. “They are not lifting any of the standard procedures, they’re not making any exceptions for this crisis and there’s a lot of people falling through the cracks.”

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