AUSTIN (KXAN) — 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.

TWC’s ‘Up to 18 week’ appeals backlog

“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.

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 Genera’ls 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.

547 New Names

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.”