Second wave of unemployed Texans asking for TWC help pour into KXAN

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Within days of a KXAN report detailing what the Texas Workforce Commission did with a list of 111 names we sent the TWC, we’ve uncovered the problems with the commission’s call centers is much worse than we knew before.

More than 300 unemployed Texans wrote to KXAN asking to have their names added to a second list we are working to submit to the state’s unemployment agency next week. On July 20, we submitted a list of 111 names of people across the state who wrote us detailing—in some cases—months of unsuccessful attempts to get someone on the line at the TWC.

Several of the 111 named on the list said they never received a call from the agency. The TWC claims to have called all of the 111 people “within three days” and resolved “102 of 111 claims,” according to an emailed response from Margaret Hession, TWC’s Director of Communications.

A total of 16 people on the list claimed to have never received a call. Of the 50 people we spoke with, 17 of the 111 told KXAN they still had not had their unemployment problems resolved as of August 11.

The TWC’s three-member board, Chairman Bryan Daniel, Labor Commissioner Julian Alvarez and Commissioner Aaron Demerson met Thursday in a virtual meeting. Just three days earlier we emailed each of the commissioners to request an interview to explain why the agency still had hundreds of people unable to reach the eight call centers the TWC established to handle pandemic-related unemployment claims.

None of the three commissioners ever agreed to an interview and neither of the three responded. We signed up to question the commissioners during the August 20 public meeting.

“We’re now five months into this pandemic—you’ve opened eight call centers, put more than 1,000 call takers to work; those call centers are open seven days a week, 12 hours a day—why are people still unable to contact a call center to get their unemployment problems taken care of?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked the commissioners.

We sent your agency 111 names last month of people who have placed thousands of calls to your call centers and were never able to get through. We aired an update last week where your agency said the best advice to those having trouble is—to just keep calling. We got 300 new complaints in the past week—people all across this state with the same problem: they cannot get through. Is there no other answer than that,” Barr asked.

None of the three TWC commissioners offered any response to those questions.

Texas Workforce Commissioners from left: Chairman Bryan Daniel, Commissioner Julian Alvaraz, III and Commissioner Aaron Demerson.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna was slated to provide an update on several items related to the agency’s performance under agenda item 15. Specifically, “Customer and Board Service Issues,” was one that appeared to relate to the problems highlighted in our reporting. But, the meeting ended with Serna never delivering any updates on any of the items contained under agenda item 15.

In response to our email requesting an interview with the three commissioners, TWC spokeswoman Hession responded in an email indicating the TWC wanted the names and contact information for the additional 300 Texans who contacted KXAN, because they could not get through to the agency’s phone centers.

“You have indicated that you have an additional 300 names that have been submitted to you, however, you have not shared those names with the agency to allow us to help those individuals.  We ask that you share those names and contact information and we will commit to assisting those individuals in a timely manner.”

Margaret Hession, TWC Director of Communications

Hession’s August 19 email comes one week after her office told KXAN the option for those who can’t get their calls answered is to keep calling.

“It’s not our normal system to have news agencies provide us lists of information for us to call through with them. It’s just not part of our system,” Cisco Gamez, a TWC spokesman said in a virtual interview last week.

The commission posted updated numbers to its website Thursday showing $25.4 billion in unemployment benefits were paid to 4.5 million Texans since March 14.

We’re currently compiling the list of names and contact information for the 300 people who contacted us detailing problems getting through to the TWC. We plan to submit the list next week.

“We plan to continue sending you all names of people desperately trying to reach the TWC, but I’m sure you’d agree—it should not take a news outlet playing middle man for the public to get the services their tax dollars pay each of you for,” Barr said to the commissioners during the August 20 meeting.

KXAN also made multiple interview requests with Governor Greg Abbott’s office. Abbott appoints each of the three TWC commissioners. We wanted to ask Abbott whether he was aware of the problems that linger at the TWC and if there’s anything to help Texans who continue having trouble communicating with the agency.

Abbott has not responded to multiple requests.

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