TWC’s $129M contractors never trained to resolve ‘complex’ unemployment problems

Investigations
Investigative Summary:

The primary Texas Workforce Commission complaint we’ve received since the pandemic started deals with contracted call takers. Hundreds of unemployed Texans wrote to KXAN with complaints of getting a contractor on the phone and being unable to have their benefits unlocked. The TWC said last September every contractor could do what a TWC agent can do when someone calls for help. Turns out, that has never been the case.

READ MORE: Cybercriminals steal nearly $1B from Texas unemployment fund

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – It took less than a week for Sonya Andrews to hit the bottom after a change in her unemployment benefits stopped her payments. Within days, she was homeless and begging for change in Killeen.

Her unemployment payments stopped, without warning, on Dec. 26. When she couldn’t make the Jan. 1, rent payment, Andrews got kicked out of a friend’s house where she was renting a small room.

Sonya Andrews asks a couple for money in a Killeen parking lot on Feb. 5, 2021.(KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Sonya Andrews asks a couple for money in a Killeen parking lot on Feb. 5, 2021. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I live out of a bag and it’s no fun,” Andrews said as she rummaged through her backpack in a parking lot. The bag, stuffed full of everything she now owns, rides on her back as she applies for jobs and begs for change. We went along with her to document her case after she wrote to KXAN in February asking for help getting in contact with the Texas Workforce Commission.

“I’m sorry to bother you. Can I ask you a question?” was the same introduction Andrews used a dozen or more times. She had to speak quickly, only a few seconds with each person in the parking lot.

“Because of unemployment, I’m out here on the streets. I’m trying to get something to eat and maybe enough for a room. I’m not asking for a whole bunch; pennies, anything that you can please help me with,” Andrews told another person.

Some gave. Others said “no.” A few apologized. Her existence, as she put it, was “disgusting.”

“I can’t say I’m a perfect person. Nobody is. But, it makes me wonder is this, like, making up for what I’ve done? God’s not that way. I was told this recently, and it’s what’s getting me through because there’s been times, I feel like giving up. But someone told me, ‘God sends his strongest warriors in his toughest battles,’” Andrews said as she shivered in the parking lot.

By giving up, Andrews clarified, there were times she said she didn’t want to live.

Andrews has a criminal record and after getting out of an Arizona prison four years ago, she moved back home to Killeen. She was already “living on the edge” as she put it and having a felony conviction meant she lost most competitions for jobs against younger applicants with clean records.

By the time we met her, Andrews had spent five weeks begging for enough money each day to get a hotel room for the night.

Turning to the TWC for help

When the pandemic hit last March, Andrews was doing well enough. Her “Sonya’s Mobile Detailing” business was keeping her busy, housed, fed and employed.

Sonya Andrews shows off the first car she detailed when she opened her "Sonya's Mobile Detailing" business. After the pandemic forced people into isolation, her business crumbled. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Sonya Andrews shows off the first car she detailed when she opened her “Sonya’s Mobile Detailing” business. After the pandemic forced people into isolation, her business crumbled. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

A look at her Facebook business page shows evidence of a job well done. Several comments and posts show satisfied customers who paid her $70 for automobile detail work. March 16, 2021 was the last post on the page.

“That was my last detail for my business,” she said.

With the statewide shutdown, Andrews – like millions of other Texans – turned to the TWC for help. The self-employed typically do not qualify for unemployment benefits, but with a change in federal unemployment regulations, she did qualify.

From May through Dec. 26, Andrews survived on unemployment. Then, she encountered a problem after the CARES Act expired on Dec. 26 and then got extended.

Andrews, like many others who contacted KXAN in January 2021, was caught in a glitch that only a TWC agent could correct. After hundreds of calls, she only ever reached a contracted call center worker. Each time she was told they couldn’t help her.

Frustrated and desperate, Andrews decided to contact a local TWC office.

Sonya Andrews cried as she talked about her grandson asking to spend the night with her as she tried to hide from him the fact that she does not have a home. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Sonya Andrews cried as she talked about her grandson asking to spend the night with her as she tried to hide from him the fact that she does not have a home. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I was told by the workforce here in town that they would call back in 24 hours. That was 3 days ago,” she said. “I was told by the unemployment people that called me; everything is going to get fixed. Somebody will call you in three to seven days. It’s been 10 days and nothing.”

Andrews was able to collect $60.09 to spend the night in a hotel. It was already past 9 p.m. when she booked it.

She hadn’t eaten a meal that day.

“There’s nothing for food, so I have to pick sometimes: do I want somewhere to stay for the night or do I want to eat? Some days I’m lucky and I get enough for both,” she said.

Andrews ended up with room 214 at a hotel with a 2.8 Google reviews rating. As soon as she slid the card into the door, she rushed inside to charge her phone and logged into her TWC account. It showed $16,038 in total payments.

“Every week, $726 — so $1,400 every two weeks to nothing,” Andrews said. Her Dec. 27 payment showed $0.

“I feel degraded. Where I was until now, I shouldn’t be like this,” Andrews told KXAN. “I’m not even proud to say I’m from Texas right now.”

Contractor: ‘That’s bulls—t’

Since the pandemic hit, KXAN heard from multiple contracted call takers. Each has the same story: they cannot help when a claimant calls with problems with their unemployment account. Each said they were only authorized to help callers file an initial claim or to make minor modifications to personal information in the claim.

Jamie Canfield has tried since January to find out if employment records she uploaded to her TWC account were received. Canfield said multiple contracted TWC call takers have been unable to help her. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Jamie Canfield has tried since January to find out if employment records she uploaded to her TWC account were received. Canfield said multiple contracted TWC call takers have been unable to help her. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“Everyone that I spoke to was like, ‘Oh my God, I finally got through to somebody. Thank God, I’ve been on hold for hours already.’ And in my head, I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ or, ‘Sir I can’t help you, but let me go ahead and try to transfer you where you can be on hold even longer if you can get through,’” a contracted call-taker told KXAN.

The contractor asked not to be identified. We confirmed his employment through hiring documents he provided in email chains between himself and his contract employer.

“We were trained to file claims over the phone; to file claims and only file claims,” the contractor said.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna told KXAN in September that his agency hired five contracted call centers to increase the agency’s call takers from 430 to more than 1,600. The agency spent $129 million in tax dollars to pay the contracts.

In the September 2020 interview, Serna disputed claims that contractors could not help claimants at the same level as a TWC agent when they called.

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

“The idea’s 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, replace you — get somebody that can get the job done.”

Ed Serna, Texas Workforce Commission Director (September 2020)

The contractor problem still isn’t fixed. We went to Jamie Canfield’s home two weeks ago and waited while she dialed the TWC’s only toll-free number to reach the unemployment claims department. It took multiple calls before the phone connected.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna asked for "help" in May 2020 to assist the agency in contacting unemployed Texans who were having trouble getting through to the TWC's 1,000-plus call takers. (KXAN Photo)
TWC Executive Director Ed Serna asked for “help” in May to assist the agency in contacting unemployed Texans who were having trouble getting through to the TWC’s 1,000-plus call takers. (KXAN Photo)

The woman who answered the phone immediately identified herself as a contract worker. The worker told Canfield she only had limited access to her account and could modify addresses and personal identification numbers. The woman explained contractors were in place to help alleviate the call volumes to the TWC.

All Canfield needed to unlock her benefits was for someone to confirm employment records she uploaded in January were received. She hasn’t had an unemployment check in more than four months and can’t get anyone with the TWC to talk to her.

Canfield’s even used the chatbot feature on the agency’s website and maxed out the number of requests for call back with it. The contractor apologized for not being able to help and said she was frustrated with not being able to help Texans who call.

The contractor attempted to transfer Canfield to a TWC agent, warning her before she did that it’s rarely successful and that she personally could only get a few calls to connect each week. After several minutes on hold, the line disconnected.

Within hours of publishing this article, the TWC had an agent call Canfield to help her with the claim she initially filed last year. KXAN submitted Canfield’s name on the May 7 list for a call back from a TWC agent.

Canfield said the call never came.

“I kept asking him, why did it take all this time but he wasn’t in the mood to talk about it,” Canfield told KXAN after she finished the call. Canfield said the TWC agent told her the reason they called now was because, “‘You had been trying to reach us and I’m returning calls’ and he did say they knew I had contacted my representative and there is a news story,” she said.

“If one of the contract workers could have told me that early on I wouldn’t have kept calling on and on for the past five months,” she told KXAN. “I’m still applying for jobs now,” she said.

Canfield mentioned she’d gotten two more pieces of art commissioned which would provide her some income in the meantime.

Jamie Canfield holds a portrait she painted of her mother who died in 2019. Canfield, who paints as a hobby, worked for the U.S. Census bureau until she was laid off in November 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Jamie Canfield holds a portrait she painted of her mother who died in 2019. Canfield, who paints as a hobby, worked for the U.S. Census bureau until she was laid off in November 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“Of all the calls we’re getting, we’re transferring off 80 to 90% of them. And, of those that are transferring, you might get, like, one or two calls per day that you actually hear successfully get connected to the TWC line where they’re waiting on hold,” the contractor who asked not to be identified told KXAN.

He quit his job in February and contacted us the next day to tell his story about what was happening inside the TWC.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to — words I can and can’t say— yeah, that’s bulls–t. The contracted reps can’t do much. And, it’s not on the contracted companies either because they train us with the material that was given to them. So, yeah, he’s (Serna) either just not aware at all as to what’s happening, or he’s talking out of his a–. Either one’s a really bad look.”

TWC: ‘We’re constantly training’

In the eight months since our first interview with the TWC’s top official, it turns out not every contracted call taker can do what Serna said he expected them to do: help Texans when they call for help. Serna was not available to be interviewed when we asked to speak with him for this report.

The TWC instead provided James Bernsen, the agency’s Deputy Director of Communications.

The Texas Workforce Commission reported an average of 1.7 million monthly calls to its call centers. Many calls have nothing to do with unemployment benefits and are leading to clogged phone lines, the agency claims. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
The Texas Workforce Commission reported an average of 1.7 million monthly calls to its call centers. Many calls have nothing to do with unemployment benefits and are leading to clogged phone lines, the agency claims. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Bernsen said the agency is still seeing high call volumes: 1.7 million calls each month. On May 5, the day before our interview, the TWC reported 491,000 calls to its call centers.

“That’s 681 calls per minute,” Bernsen said. “With this volume, as you can imagine, we can’t just take everybody off and put them through the rigorous training that we do for TWC employees year to year. That being said, we have made some really good strides in training some of these folks.”

The agency said it has trained some contractors to do what a TWC agent can, but admitted with the limited time on the job at this point, the agency can’t get the contractors to where they need to be.

“TWC staff who are working full time, they’ve gone through a process that sometimes takes up to two years to train them fully in the ins and outs of the of the unemployment system; all the rules and all the laws and how they apply. And, so, we bring in these contractors, they can’t learn all that stuff on the job,” Bernsen said.

Although limited, a contractor’s ability to edit a PIN on an account “are very important tasks,” according to Bernsen. The PIN is a target of those working to commit fraud against the agency and a “large percentage” of the calls to the TWC call centers. Having contractors handle those helps TWC agents deal with “more complex questions,” Bernsen said.

Of the thousands of TWC complaints KXAN’s received since the pandemic, PIN issues have not been an element of those complaints since early in the pandemic. In the past year most every complaint dealt with some other claim trouble.

Another problem plaguing the call centers is people calling with questions that have nothing to do with unemployment. The TWC reported many calls tying up its lines are questions about Internal Revenue Service stimulus checks or questions about unemployment where answers are already posted on the agency’s website.

“It’s really kind of a ‘chicken and the egg’ and we’re trying to make sure that we get those contractors trained, but we also have folks there to handle the vast volume,” Bernsen told KXAN. “We’ve been improving the system. We’ve added the call centers, and we’ve made a lot of progress. But, as you say, we still have a long way to go and we’re still continuing to work towards improving that system.”

Sonya Andrews sighed in frustration when she checked her TWC debit card to find nearly $3,000 in delayed benefits had not been deposited. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Sonya Andrews sighed in frustration when she checked her TWC debit card to find nearly $3,000 in delayed benefits had not been deposited. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Sonya Andrews’ five weeks of living on the streets ended just days after we submitted her name to the TWC. Since last summer, we’ve submitted 1,738 names to the TWC — all people who contacted KXAN with stories of not getting help when they contacted the agency’s call centers.

It took three days for the TWC to get to Andrews’ name. Her claim was fixed faster than it took the TWC agent to introduce herself.

“It took two seconds,” Andrews said. “Really? It was that easy? That’s all it took, I mean, more of me answering the phone saying hello than for her to fix it.”

Within hours, $1,800 dollars in delayed unemployment funds were deposited to her TWC debit card. Later that day the remaining $922 the TWC owed her also landed on her debit card. Andrews’ first stop was to rent an extended stay motel where she didn’t have to worry about where she’d sleep for the next seven days.

“I’m going back to look for work now. I can now work to get my detailing business back instead of spending the day begging for scraps and calling the unemployment office. I’ve got a small part of my life back,” Andrews said.

KXAN filed an open records request with the TWC asking for complaints, audits and whether any contractor had been sanctioned by the TWC. The agency responded with a cost estimate of $711 to provide all the records we requested for this investigation. The agency provided contracts and the total paid to each contracted call center used in this report without charge.

Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Investigative Photographer Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeremy Wright contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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