TWC was 1 month away from hiring firm to replace computer servers before pandemic hit

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Gigi Murray couldn’t have been any happier if she’d won the lottery.

After weeks of trying to file an unemployment claim and weeks of attempts to get someone on the phone, she finally got a call from inside the Texas Workforce Commission.

Then came two more calls from two other TWC staffers, all looking to help her and her husband file their unemployment claims.

Gigi Murray and her husband haven’t received an unemployment payment since they were approved 53 days ago (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

After hundreds of failed phone calls to the TWC, Murray got three calls from the commission’s unemployment insurance division in a single day.

“They said ‘You are eligible. ‘We’re going to contact one of our employees who will handle all of the paperwork for you,” Murray said in an interview with KXAN last week. “Oh, I felt great! I was like, ‘Yes, it’s finally taken care of and then it’s not.”

The calls came on April 6, the next business day after she appeared in a KXAN report.

All three TWC staffers told Murray she and her husband were approved for unemployment, she said. The staffers were looking at the Murrays’ personal information stored in the commission’s large internal computer servers.

MORE: KXAN helps furloughed teacher reach TWC, fix her problem after unemployment benefit denial

All three told her the same: she’d get a form letter denying her benefits, but she should ignore those communications. The check’s in the mail.

“But, not to worry about that, it would definitely be paid and as you see, I’ve got nothing,” Murray said as she held a TWC letter in her hands.

“You did not earn enough in your base period to qualify for benefits,” Murray said as she read the letter titled ‘Statement of Benefits’ denying her unemployment payments. Then, other letters followed showing her monthly payments.

“Zero, zero, zero, zero…all totals, everything is zero,” she said as she read off the monthly statements the TWC’s mailed her since those April 6 phone calls from the TWC.

“The paperwork is saying it, but the individuals that called said I was eligible. They also said I might get this information in the mail, but to ignore it and don’t worry that the correct paperwork would be issued. But it was not issued.”

OUTDATED, ‘PROBLEMATIC’ TWC SERVERS

Sometime in the early 90s, two large IBM mainframe servers were rolled into Austin.

It’s where every bit of the tens of millions of pieces of data connected to Texans’ unemployment and tax records would be stored.

That information is still being stored on that same equipment to this day.

The latest updates to the mainframes came in late March when the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic filings started flooding the TWC. Within weeks, the commission saw more unemployment claims than it had in the entire 12 months before. Within days of the first round of layoffs, the commission’s outdated software was unable to handle the hundreds of thousands of online claim applications.

That’s not counting the millions of phone calls per day the TWC has been unable to answer.

That failure to handle the influx has kept some Texans from seeing a single unemployment check in more than two months. Despite the inability to handle the volume, the TWC still managed to pay out $5.7 billion to more than 2.5 million claimants since mid-March.

The commission’s programmers have kept the systems running and updated along the way and it’s now a system “difficult to maintain from a programming perspective,” the commission wrote in a July 2019 document. The document, known as a Request For Offers or RFO, sought bids from private software companies to replace the TWC’s 30-year-old mainframe system and software programs.

“It takes time to make changes to it just because of its complexity and the fact that it was originally created in the 1990s and we’ve added things to it,” TWC Executive Director Ed Serna told KXAN.

Software developers have criticized the time it took the TWC to decide to upgrade its mainframe systems, saying the commission’s server replacement project should have happened a decade ago.

“It’s a fair criticism, but only if you’re looking at something from the pure technology side not the ‘You’re in government and you have to implement it from a practical side.’ That’s one component that I think my private sector counterparts always forget, is we have the constraints of, ‘I have to have the funding and have to get approval for the funding before I can or I can jump to something,” Serna told KXAN.

The Texas Workforce Commission posted a solicitation for bids in July 2019, just one month after Gov. Greg Abbott signed off on a funding request of $40 million to allow the commission to upgrade its unemployment insurance servers.

The troubles with the old system created problems for hundreds of thousands of Texans during the pandemic.

The TWC had to go into the software to write code that would tell the unemployment system to continue payments past 13 weeks-otherwise unemployment payments would automatically end. The delay caused some of the state’s unemployed to go without unemployment payments.

“We didn’t have that programming done until about a week and a half ago and didn’t turn that aspect of the Cares Act on until last week because that system is so old it’s difficult to make changes to,” Serna said.  

“The second biggest challenge we have is, it’s a it’s a green screen system so it takes a long, long time to get up to speed in and to understand the code,” Serna explained. The problems leads to long lags in getting new staff trained to operate the systems.

Although the public uses a web portal to apply for and to request unemployment benefits, staff in the commission’s call centers are using the “green screen” systems to access and input information during each call they field.

Under Serna’s leadership, the legislature and governor approved $40 million to pay for the mainframe replacements last June. The next month, the commission went public with the details of its plan and started the process of finding a company to do the job.

The TWC’s July 2019 RFO contained a timeline showing a “Tentative Contract Award” set to be issued in February 2020—just weeks before the pandemic left millions of Texans unemployed. When KXAN interviewed TWC Executive Director Ed Serna in April, he said then the server replacement project was suspended, although the contract award date was “tentatively” set for the month before the pandemic hit.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna told KXAN in this May 22, 2020 interview that the commission was about to execute a contract with a vendor to replace the agency’s antiquated software systems when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the project to a halt.

The TWC suspended the project so the commission’s IT staff could focus full time on the influx of new claims. That suspension ended a couple weeks ago, according to Serna, and the TWC is now working to award the $40 million contract.

“Because we had a couple of good offers we need to go back and forth and refine the timing just caught us off guard. If the pandemic could only have waited one more month…we probably would have had an executed contract,” Serna said.

The new servers would be cloud-based and housed at the Texas Department of Information Resources. The new system would also allow the TWC to respond — in real time — to demands if another disaster were to hit Texas’ workforce. The RFO shows the commission ordered a 500% increase in capacity to be able to respond to any future disaster.

“Because we’ve learned so much from how we’ve had to react and what we needed to have happen in the pandemic — I had a meeting with our UI staff and our IT staff and kind of going over what we learned that we needed because of the pandemic, do we have that? Were we smart enough to put that in the bin or lucky enough to put that in the original bid document, did we get a response to that? I’m pleased to report that yeah, in all cases things that we needed or that we thought we needed because of the pandemic, we already had in the in the bid document will have that in the new system,” Serna said.

As for Gigi Murray, the commission contacted her on May 23, the day after KXAN’s interview with Serna. The Murrays claim, although it was approved, was not classified under the Cares Act.

The commission amended their unemployment claim to be paid out under the Act and the commission told the Murrays they will receive their unemployment benefits on Wednesday, according to Murray.

“Our goal is to push the funds out because we recognize it’s a lifeline — and again there’s no benefit to us,” Serna said. “This money can’t be used for anything else, absolutely cannot be used for anything else other than for benefits.”

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