AUSTIN (KXAN) — He’d just finished his shift when he got home and ripped open a letter from the Texas Workforce Commission. Just seconds before, Jonah Hernandez had no idea that he’d apparently applied for unemployment and got $1,460 from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Except, he’s never applied for benefits and hasn’t been unemployed during the pandemic.
“It never hit my bank account,” Hernandez said of the supposed $1,460 deposit. “I’ve got the statements to show from the time that they claim this was issued, which was back in July, until all the way now, nothing shows that I got that extra $1,400 in my account.”
Hernandez’s documents show the TWC first notified him of what the agency calls an “overpayment” in a letter dated July 15. That’s when he said he immediately picked up the phone and started calling the toll-free number posted on the TWC’s website and on the letters.
“I try calling, immediately get hit with a message that there’s too many calls coming in, we can’t, you know—too bad,” Hernandez said. Those calls were supplemented with emails to multiple TWC divisions but were never answered, he said.
“Then another month went by, and I got a second letter, this one a little bit more threatening than the last, and it’s the same bill essentially that I still owe this much money.” The second letter warned Hernandez that his account would be turned over to collections if he failed to respond to the TWC.
Although, like more than 600 other unemployed Texans who contacted KXAN after never getting through to the TWC, Hernandez said he was making daily calls that were never answered.
“It did make me freak out a little bit more, because I have been emailing constantly, calling every day; we’re talking like five emails in a day and nothing—no reply, nothing. It just felt hopeless. I either take care of this by paying money I never got to begin with or have the consequences of having it sent to a collections agency, messing up my credit. It was pretty threatening in that way.”
Hernandez was one of the 510 names we submitted to the TWC on Sept. 8. The agency promised to call each of the people on that list to fix their unemployment troubles. Hernandez said he got a call from an El Paso area code just two days later on Sept. 10 but missed the early morning call.
The TWC sent him an email telling him they tried to contact him and would try to call him again. When we interviewed Hernandez on Sept. 15, his call log does not show any missed calls from any number connected to the TWC or that El Paso area code.
THE $203M ‘OVERPAYMENTS’
We asked Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna for an interview for this report. Serna’s press office said Serna “…was unavailable to do an interview due to his schedule.” Instead of the interview, the agency asked for questions to be answered during a planned Facebook live set for 2 p.m. on Sept. 15.
The agency decided to cancel the live stream where unemployed Texans could have a chance to question the TWC and opted to post a pre-recorded video answering some of the points we asked to have answered concerning overpayments.
“You must repay those benefits, even if the overpayments were not your fault,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez said in the video. Gamez revealed the agency had paid 185,000 Texans $203 million dollars in unemployment benefits “that you were not eligible to receive,” the video shows.
The debt, as the TWC called it, will follow the debtor for life.
“State law requires TWC to recover all unemployment benefits overpayments. There is no statute of limitations on debts owed to the state and TWC cannot forgive or dismiss the overpayments, and there is no exception for hardships,” Gamez said.
The agency also took no responsibility for allowing the overpayments, which have reduced the state’s unemployment account by $203 million since mid-March, to happen in the first place. We asked the TWC why a sufficient investigation could not be performed when the agency initially determines whether someone qualifies for benefits. Gamez said federal rules require state unemployment agencies to act quickly when an unemployment claim is filed.
“Federal regulations and Supreme Court cases require that state unemployment insurance agencies quickly pay unemployment insurance benefits when due,” Gamez said. That deadline gives the TWC three weeks to investigate and determine whether the person filing for benefits is truly qualified to receive them.
The TWC has to rely on the information from the claimant when a claim is filed, then the agency contacts the employer to verify the information before determining whether the claimant qualifies for unemployment and their monthly benefit. Sometimes the TWC can’t get that done within the 21 day deadline, Games said.
None of that does people like Jonah Hernandez any good since he can’t get anyone on the phone to help him understand where that $1,460 check went.
“Unfortunately, that means that subsequent information received by TWC changes the outcome of the initial decision, which results in an overpayment of benefits,” Gamez said in the recorded statement. “The bottom line is that our priority is to pay eligible individuals as quickly as possible. If we waited until all the information was completely verified, it would not meet federal guidelines.”
“You see how much money they’ve misplaced or lost as they put it, and it makes it unfair that I’ve got cases here that I’ve got money they want me to pay back that I never got, because I never filed for unemployment. And then I hear about people who haven’t even gotten money yet who have applied for unemployment and are being withheld, because they’re not eligible, and it seems like it’s a whole mess now,” Hernandez told KXAN.
“If I could get just one conversation or someone pointing me in the general direction of who do I need to contact instead of contacting everybody, that would be some sort of help, but it’s all kind of the same: either you know what to do or not,” he said, “It just seems unfair that I don’t get to voice my side of what’s going on, how do I need to take care of this—it just feels like bullying quite honestly because of the situation I’ve been handed with this.”