People say they still can’t get a hold of Texas unemployment agency 5 months into pandemic

Workforce Complaint Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – When we rolled into the Carver Library parking lot on Aug. 5 to interview Ashley Green, she’d just celebrated the four-month anniversary of filing her unemployment claim. The five-month anniversary of that filing is coming quickly.

“I applied March 29th,” Green said as she pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed up her online account on the TWC website.

“March 29th is the claims start date and then today is August 5th and it’s still showing they’re reviewing my claim to see if I can be paid benefits,” Green told KXAN. She drained her tax refund and took on credit card debt to survive those two months.

“I thought it would probably take a couple of weeks to get everything sorted,” Green said. “I figured I would probably have to answer some questions with the Texas Workforce Commission and then everything would be fine, and then I never heard from anyone.”

She also contacted Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, who represents Green’s district in the Texas House, for help. Green said the representative’s office never responded. We sent Cole’s office a message to follow up on Green’s behalf, but that message was never answered.

Green’s name was one of 111 names and contact information we sent the TWC on July 20. We asked more than 100 tipsters who contacted KXAN asking for help if we could send their information to the TWC. Those who agreed and had still not gotten through were included in the list.

The commission’s executive director, Ed Serna, asked for the information the last time we interviewed him in May. At the time, the TWC had turned one of its eight call centers into a center to direct call unemployed Texans who were unable to get through on the agency’s toll-free line.

Ashley Green filed her unemployment claim on March 29, 2020. She did not receive any unemployment payments until the day after our interview in early August. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I would ask that you work with us, and by work with us I mean, contact us and you guys could help us, too, if you could share some of that contact information with us so we can reach out to them and get them that money they deserve,” Serna said in that interview. The call centers were making around 55,000 outbound calls each day at that time, Serna said.

“Anybody else, Jody, if you don’t mind, that you can share with us that you’re aware of will help us with some of the outbound calling that we have because, again, our goal is to push these funds out because we recognize it’s a lifeline,” Serna asked.

On July 20, we finalized the list and confirmed that each of the 111 names we submitted had working phone numbers and email addresses. We submitted the list to the TWC that day.

TWC: It’s ‘not impossible’ to get through

We gave the TWC a few weeks to make its way through the 111 names on the list. Over the next few days, messages started coming in that the TWC had contacted some people on the list and corrected their unemployment trouble.

Then, those messages slowed to a stop.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna asked for KXAN’s “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)

Green said she tried for two months to get through before simply giving up. The day after we interviewed the TWC about Green’s case, the agency sent her an email telling her the unemployment she was owed was being deposited into her bank account.

Roxanne Mueller was on the list and gave up on trying to get her calls answered.

Since April, the TWC doubled its call centers from four to eight. The agency also put more than 1,000 call takers to work, according to Cisco Gamez, the agency’s spokesman. Despite the extra manpower, unemployed Texans were still having trouble getting calls answered to have their unemployment payments approved.

“I spent Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday just on speed dial and called over 4,000 times,” Mueller told KXAN. Months ago, Mueller used the TWC’s online website to file her claim and was receiving unemployment payments without fail.

That is, until she missed a bi-weekly payment request filing.

“By 5 minutes,” Mueller told KXAN. The payment requests are supposed to be filed to let the TWC know a filer has not found work. Each filer has a specific day to file the request or they’ll be locked out of the system. Mueller had forgotten to file one Sunday and remembered at 12:05 a.m.

She missed her filing deadline by 300 seconds.

“I was panicking, I was having a panic attack, I was having anxiety because I didn’t know what else to do. There was nothing to do. I just reached a point where I had to stop because I couldn’t spend all my days just worrying about that,” Mueller said.

Roxanne Mueller made 4,000 unsuccessful calls to the TWC in three days after missing a payment request filing by five minutes. The day after we sent her name to the TWC, her payments were reactivated. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Mueller’s name was on the July 20 list we submitted to the TWC. She never got a call, but the day after we submitted the list, she got word from the commission.

“I got an email,” Mueller said. The message told her the TWC was reactivating her payments.   

“I’m talking, missed requesting my payment by 5 minutes put me in this situation that I was absolutely cut off. So, I don’t think without y’all I could have gotten my payments,” Mueller said, “It wouldn’t have gotten taken care of if y’all didn’t contact them for me. It was lost, I was just counting it off.”

“There has to be thousands of people out there that have done the same thing,” she said.

“Those phone lines may be busy, but it’s not impossible to get through,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez told KXAN. Gamez is on the agency’s communications team, which is the team we submitted the list to on July 20. Gamez said he couldn’t discuss any of the cases on the list, citing federal privacy laws.

“The information you sent us was provided to unemployment insurance services,” Gamez said.

“For people today to tell us they were never contacted — why would that happen?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Gamez.

“I won’t be able to speak on behalf of people who were not contacted or feel as though they were not contacted. It’s not our normal system to have news agencies provide us lists of information for us to call through with them. It’s just not part of our system,” Gamez said.

The only problem each of the 111 people on the list had was getting just one of the 1,000-plus TWC call takers to answer the phone.

“We do ask that people try to give us a call. I do understand that there may be some issues for people trying to get through,” Gamez said. He says the best time to call is early in the morning or later in the evening. The TWC call centers are open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Gamez said he couldn’t confirm whether the agency did – or didn’t – call each of the 111 people, but that those who said they didn’t get a call likely ignored it, fearing it was spam.

The agency has processed claims for 4.3 million Texans since mid-March. Those claims totaled 24.1 billion dollars, according to data published on the commission’s website.

“With the call centers that are open with the 1,000-plus call takers, the extended hours, the 7-day-a-week operation, why would people still be having trouble today getting a call answered by the TWC?” Barr asked Gamez.

“We still are receiving a large number of calls each day. Those calls are generally not a quick yes, no, check a box and it’s done,” Gamez said.

The short answer: keep calling.

TWC: Call, call and call again

We made nearly 100 calls to Texans who contacted us asking for help. Some had called the TWC so often they were able to figure out “hacks” to bypass the its automated phone systems and reach a call taker.

“Just hold on the line and don’t enter any of the options when prompted,” a man included on our list of 111 said. That man, who asked not to be identified for this report, said he never got a call from the TWC, but experimented with each option in the commission’s toll-free line.

After deciding to listen past the automated prompts, he was placed on hold and after nearly three hours, the man said he was connected to a call taker who helped get his claim out of a pending status.

Texas Workforce Commissioners from left: Chairman Bryan Daniel, Commissioner Julian Alvaraz, III and Commissioner Aaron Demerson.

When pressed on whether Texans have any other option than calling hundreds of times to get through to the TWC, the commission’s spokesman didn’t have any other suggestions.

“With this report, what we want to be able to tell the public is: if you are in this position, what in the world are their options that they can take care of this today and help you all help them to get these benefits they so desperately need,” Barr asked.

“Our goal is to help everyone who applies for unemployment insurance. If they’re eligible for benefits, they will receive them. It’s unfortunate that some people are running into delays, some issues. In general, our goal is to pay as quickly as we can,” Gamez answered.

Again, just keep calling.

The TWC is governed by a three-member panel, each appointed by the governor. Bryan Daniel chairs the TWC and was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in July 2019. Commissioner Julian Alvarez, III was appointed by Abbott in March 2017 and Commissioner Aaron Demerson was appointed last August.

We requested an interview with Abbott to address the continuing problems plaguing some people trying to contact the TWC. A call and email message to the governor’s press office requesting an interview has not been answered.

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