AUSTIN (KXAN) – When KXAN rolled up to Gigi Murray’s Spicewood home, she was ready to talk.
Laid off two weeks ago — along with her husband — she’s spent nearly every minute of the past two weeks trying to get someone from the Texas Workforce Commission on the phone.
Murray’s phone log proves it.
“This’ll be 98,” Murray said as she held out her cell phone to show the number of times she’s called the TWC’s toll-free phone line.
KXAN’s Jody Barr asked her to try again while we stood with her on her porch. “Let’s do 99,” she said as an annoying telephone busy signal screamed out of the phone’s speaker. “Let’s just go to 100 today, make a new record.”
The line was busy.
As soon as she and her husband were laid off two weeks ago, Murray said they both logged onto the TWC’s online unemployment benefits application portal to file their claims. Her husband, who’d filed for benefits 20 years ago, couldn’t establish a new account because his old account contained different information.
Murray’s own application needed a personal identification number before she could take the final step in filing online.
“Then they say, ‘We can better assist you if you call this number,’ and then you call the number and it’s a dead end,” Murray told KXAN.
“Just today, I’ve called the number 93 times and I’ve never gotten an answer. I get fast busy signals, I get recordings… I get various things that make me hopeful, that they’re going to answer the phone and they never answer the phone,” she said.
Without the application filed with the TWC, the Murrays have no chance at drawing unemployment benefits and no income.
“If you could get the head of the Texas Workforce Commission right here on this porch today, what would you tell him?” Barr asked Murray. “I would say that he needs to update that website because I think that’s the key to this. Because if he updates that website where we can get on and make the changes to whatever we need to make without having to call. I think that’s going to make the job for them a lot easier.”
“It’s not just me and my family, there are hundreds of thousands of families that are going through this,” Murray said.
The head of the TWC, Director Ed Serna, agreed to a teleconference interview with KXAN Friday morning. Serna said he’s aware that people can’t get through on the overcrowded phone lines and said the agency is working to cut down on the need to call.
“We thought we had good plans in place and we do have good plans in place, but not for this. Now, we’re rewriting the book — completely rewriting the book,” Serna told KXAN.
The agency is reporting progress.
Wednesday, Serna said the TWC processed 70,000 unemployment claims online —with 3,000 of those claims handled by phone. As of the close of business Thursday, he said the commission processed another 98,000 claims with 3,500 claims processed through the agency’s four call centers.
“At the TWC, part of your job and mission is to forecast the job market, you provide data, you have people who analyze — look at what’s happening to anticipate claims, perhaps, so we don’t have this massive backlog,” Barr asked Serna. “What did your agency do leading up to this to anticipate this tidal wave that was coming? That now, three weeks into this, it’s still at a place where the agency’s not able to handle the capacity of people coming to you all for help?”
“It’s frustrating to us because we had plans and we successfully handled other disasters: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, fires — none of those plans anticipated the magnitude and volume and two, the speed that it happened,” Serna said.
Serna described the influx of unemployment filings as three different “waves.”
The first was the cancellation of SXSW and the large rodeo events in Austin, Houston and Dallas that led to massive numbers of lay offs in the restaurant and entertainment industries, then lay offs in the oil fields and a third wave with the passage of the CARES Act.
That act, among other entitlements, extended unemployment benefits and provided benefits to workers who were not qualified to draw unemployment before.
Before the pandemic, the agency staffed 400 call takers. That number was increased in late March by another 300 staffers as the agency saw the number of claims explode between mid-February through March 31. In those six weeks, Serna said the agency filed more claims than it filed in all of 2019.
The director said on March 26, the TWC phone servers saw 1.7 million calls.
The agency had a little more than 600 phone lines to handle calls, but this week contracted with a national phone company to install another 400 phone lines as four call centers will soon be online. Many of those calls are coming from people who attempted to file online but were prompted to call the TWC to finish their applications.
“We’re actually looking at a couple of things: first of all, we’re looking at improvements at our online system to eliminate some of that,” Serna said. “Unfortunately, some of those checks that we have there — are to prevent fraud and we’re getting tangled up in it. We’re trying to figure out how to overcome that without jeopardizing the claimants’ data.”
The agency also plans to add an additional 100 workers to help field calls in the coming weeks.
“If I could go back in time knowing what I know now, of course we would have changed things. I’m sure the head of H-E-B, or Walmart would have said the exact same thing: ‘If I knoew now what I knew then, I would have stocked up on toilet paper and canned good and cleaning supplies.’ I think hospitals would have said, ‘Let’s stock up on face masks and ventilators.’ Ultimately, as Harry Truman said, ‘The buck stops here, the buck stops on this desk, and I know that.”
The agency extended its call center hours and moved to a six-day work week. TWC staffers are taking calls from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and staffers are only allowed a 30-minute lunch, Serna said.
The best time to try to file online is between midnight and 5 a.m., according to Serna. The agency’s also deployed a chat bot to help answer some of the questions people might want answered without having to call the TWC.
Those upgrades can’t come fast enough for Tammy Myrick.
She’s called the TWC exactly 200 times between Wednesday and when we interviewed her Thursday. Myrick recorded her 200th call during our interview outside her Bee Cave home.
“After two weeks of trying, I just can’t believe there’s that many people that need to talk to them; there’s that many people that have apparently been kicked out of the website and told to call the telecenter and we’re all calling,” Myrick said.
Myrick was furloughed March 25. The next day she went online to file her unemployment application, but the site prompted her to call the TWC to finish her application.
“My rent is due today and I’m scared to use the money I have in the bank to pay it, because I don’t know if I’m going to get unemployment,” Myrick said.
“If you’re standing here next week in the same spot, what do you do?” Barr asked Murray.
“I’m going to call you again and I’m going to keep calling you until KXAN gets this taken care of,” Murray said.