Investigative Summary:

From Lubbock to Brownsville to El Paso to Tyler — in literally every corner of the Lone Star state, we’ve heard the same story concerning the phone lines at the Texas Workforce Commission: long wait times, and a roll of the dice whether a person they finally connect with can actually help them. KXAN’s investigation discovered some of the hundreds of contractors hired to help with the surge in calls aren’t able to provide much beyond basic assistance and are telling callers who have more complicated issues to call back in hopes of getting someone who works directly for the TWC.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Imagine showing up to a job where you know that almost 75% of what you do will fail someone. What if a fireman failed to help someone in three out of four fire calls? What if a police officer failed to help clear three out of four 911 calls?

Day, after day.

That’s what a contractor helping field calls for the Texas Workforce Commission told us was going on inside some of the agency’s call centers. The contractor, who asked to not be identified in this report, told KXAN the problem facing nearly every caller is that their call may be answered by people who have no way to help Texans calling for help with their unemployment problems.

This worker said they’re unable to help about three-quarters of the people who call with unemployment problems.

Since the pandemic hit in mid-March, hundreds of unemployed Texans wrote to us, all telling the same story: thousands of calls to the TWC’s lone toll-free number are never answered. The few who have connected are likely to find themselves on the line with one of 1,600 contracted customer service representatives.

At first, they think their prayers are answered and the weeks – sometimes months – of waiting for their unemployment benefits is over.

Then, the contractor reads from the script they use when they answer a call: “I am limited to the types of questions I can answer.”

That’s led to many unemployed Texans hitting a dead-end, following a series of calls to the TWC, and never finding help.

$26.4 million and counting

In April, the bosses inside the TWC were scrambling. As state and local stay-at-home orders began locking Texans down in mid-March, millions lost their jobs and headed straight for the unemployment office.

Within days, the TWC’s phone lines were jamming and its automated online portal crashed with hundreds of thousands of people trying to file unemployment claims. The agency put together deals with contracted call centers to help handle the onslaught of unemployed Texans trying to get calls answered to get claims filed and problems fixed.

In two contracts obtained by KXAN in May, the TWC approved up to $15 million in spending on two service agreements with one company. The agreements are dated April 11.

Since then, the TWC contracted with three other companies. Total spending at this point has reached $26.4 million, according to the agency’s spokesman James Bernsen.

The TWC contracted more than 1,600 new call takers in April. One of those contract workers told KXAN they can’t access claimant accounts to help Texans when they call with problems with their unemployment benefits. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

The initial contracts provided 100 “remote customer service representatives” at the outset and planned for “ramping up” to 300 contracted call takers. Each agent would cost taxpayers $48.52 an hour. Each contracted call taker was expected to have the ability to help the TWC’s 430 Unemployment Insurance agents answer calls and edit claimants’ accounts.

Except, that hasn’t always happened.

“All we would see is if it’s disqualified, and if they have any question as to why or how to fix it, I can provide them with the web site information on how to file an appeal, but I don’t have any information about that exact problem — it’s not even provided for me. I don’t even see it on the system,” a contracted call-taker told KXAN.

To not put the contractor at risk, the contractor asked not to be identified by name or which contracted firm they work for. This contractor is one of 1,600 contract workers currently helping the TWC field calls and help resolve unemployment problems for Texans calling the agency’s toll-free line.

But the contractor says the TWC limited what this contractor and the contractor’s team can see and do when someone calls.

This contractor’s firm can only handle new claim filings or help with resetting personal identification numbers and address changes, according to the contractor. They’re limited to what is known as an “inquiry-only” status, meaning the contractor can not get into an account to correct problems with claims. The inability to correct these problems has prevented untold numbers of unemployed Texans from being able to unlock their unemployment checks for months at a time.

The only option for the claimant: call back until you reach one of the 430 TWC agents.

“I’ve had multiple people where they call and as soon as I say I’m a contractor they disconnect the call because they’ve heard it all before. They’ve been through this loop of contractor after contractor and it’s pretty much the luck of the draw — is it going to connect to a TWC agent or not when you dial the phone number?” the contractor told KXAN.

We’ve also heard from dozens of people who contacted KXAN asking for help reaching the TWC. Each of those tipsters said they’d connected with a contracted call taker and if their claim involved anything more than a PIN reset or an address change they would be told to call back and wait in line for a TWC agent.

“I spoke to two contractors. They were very cordial, I must admit, and very patient. Unfortunately, they were not able to assist me and they make that known,” Monique Lamping of Fort Bend County told KXAN. “It appears they have a script they’re reading from where they state that they are just contractors, they are taking calls but they are not able to give any information or a status of my claim or situation you may have.”

Lampkin said she first finally got through on the agency’s toll-free line on Sept. 19 and pressed option #3, which is where callers can speak with an agent to discuss problems with their account.

The contractor told Limpkin she’d have to call the toll-free number again to speak with an agent.

“I asked, ‘Could I at least leave a message with the agency that can be notated in the system so that the TWC can at least see that I did attempt to call them back?’ However, they don’t have the capabilities,” Limpkin said.

“The contractors did make it known that they aren’t able to access the system. ‘We don’t have no way to log in, give you any information, a status or anything,'” she continued. “The contractors were able to just appease me a little bit and with more empathy: ‘Mrs. Lampkin, if we could do more for you, we would, but we just can’t.”

It’s not supposed to be that way

As far as TWC Executive Director Ed Serna knew when we spoke to him last Wednesday, all 2,000 TWC agents and contract workers at this point were able to handle most any problem facing any unemployed Texans when they picked up the phone line. When Serna’s team executed the $26.4 million call center contracts, that was the agency’s expectation, according to Serna.

“There should not be a circumstance — unless it’s a complicated situation — our contractors should be able to answer and assist someone when they call in. If they can’t, those are the ones that I want to know about,” Serna told KXAN.

“Everybody that answers a phone has the authority to make a change to that claim. So, all 2,000-plus people that are answering calls for us have that authority,” Serna said when asked.

However, Serna wasn’t surprised by what the contractor told us. In fact, the TWC has already issued warnings to some of their contracted call center firms before about not taking care of problems and passing those callers off to the TWC’s 430 agents.

Each time a caller is transferred to a TWC agent, the agency issues that contractor a “tick mark” and the agency can sanction those contractors with too many transfers, according to Serna.

“If we have contractors that don’t feel that they can or don’t have the tools — and I need to know that because that’s not what I’ve been told in — that’s not the instruction that we’ve given. We’ve even called in a couple of contractors on the carpet for, ‘You’re transferring too many calls to us and you’re not helping because all you’re doing is, you’re now delaying that individual getting the help, one, and you’re clogging up a phone line,’” Serna said.

“The reason we hired these folks was to, one, help the 400 that we had but to have more people answering the phones and helping them, actually helping resolve the problem, not just listening and answering, ‘OK, well I got to hand you off to somebody.’ That’s no help,” Serna said.

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To get around the “tick mark” tracking, the contractor we interviewed said callers are told to continue calling back until they connect with a TWC agent. Serna said there is no real-time way to track when that happens.

The TWC can listen in to calls, can see the length of the call, the caller’s number and which contractor was involved in the call. But, as far as the result of the call, Serna said the agency did not have a way to track that metric.

Serna seemed surprised to know this problem was happening so often.

“That’s very — one: it’s disappointing. But two, it’s frustrating to me and I can only imagine how frustrating it is to our customers who get in, they have the phone answered and they’re not helped or they’re handed off to somebody else,” Serena told KXAN.

The fix lies in either hiring more TWC agents or giving each contract worker full access to edit claimant accounts, the contractor we interviewed said. The people we’ve spoken with since mid-March said this problem has plagued the TWC since the start of the pandemic.

“If they could fix that, I think the majority of the problems would be solved — just cross-training for contractors because we do want to do more. We all have to — I’ve talked to so many people even within my department, as well, that constantly say ‘I wish I could do more for these people, it hurts every day to listen to all these people talk about how terrible it is because they can’t get through and their life’s about to get shut off,’” the contractor said.

“I wish they would actually take calls to see how upset Texans are right now. It’s at a time —especially with this pandemic — that we should be helping fellow Texans and not just sending them in a loop, and I just feel like they haven’t done enough. These problems have been around, they’re known, it’s not like they can plead innocent on that, that they didn’t know,” the contractor told KXAN, “These problems are consistent and they need to be addressed. And, at some point I feel like someone needs to be held accountable for all of these decisions —or the lack of decisions at this point.”

Serna said he’s now working to find out whether any of the contracting firms misunderstood the TWC’s directive.

“This is unacceptable. I know that we don’t want them handing them off and I know what I’ve been told — and I’ll validate it and I appreciate you bringing it to my attention — but what I’ve been told by our staff is all 2,000 of those, our operators or our contractors, have the same ability,” Serna said. “The idea is that you call, you get the help and if you’re a contractor and you don’t know, then we’ll get you more training or, quite frankly, we’ll replace you. Get somebody that can get the job done.”