AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on employment, the Texas Workforce Commission is still struggling to keep up with demand from people applying for unemployment benefits.
Folks who’ve lost their jobs have filed nearly two million claims in Texas since March 8th, and the state has paid out $2.7 billion.
Tom Miller talked with the Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna about the unemployment process and getting help for folks who need it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
TOM: Why is it so difficult for people calling TWC to actually get a human being on the phone?
ED: That’s just a matter of the volume. I’ll give you an example, yesterday we received over two million calls to our eight call centers, that’s about 61 calls a second. We have close to 1,400 people answering the phone. When we get someone on the phone to help them the average call is about a 15 to 20-minute call. So it’s just the sheer volume that makes it impossible unfortunately for individuals to get in.
TOM: What are employee rights if you don’t feel comfortable returning to work? Maybe you have a preexisting condition or perhaps a child who’s no longer in school or daycare. Do you keep getting those unemployment benefits?
ED: We’re not going to automatically end your benefits if you don’t take a suitable job that’s offered to you. You might have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or you might be caring for someone who is, or you might be quarantined, or your child’s daycare or school, of course we know the schools are closed, but childcare may not be available to you. So we know there’s going to be exceptions, we’re not going to cut people off because you didn’t accept suitable employment, we’re going to look at each of those situations on a case by case basis.
TOM: Can you elaborate more on people “blocking the line” — calling hundreds of times a day when their claim is already approved?
ED: We’re getting more people that are just calling to just verify that everything is okay. A couple of weeks ago we had one individual who called us over a thousand times, we called him back to make sure everything was okay, we checked his record and yup, he had successfully filed a claim, he had submitted a payment request, we had told him he’d get his deposit on a particular day, which was last week sometime, and he told us he just wanted to be absolutely sure. Well, that clogged up a thousand times the telephone system. So that’s the only reason we’re struggling. I have to admit, it’s just the sheer volume of people that are contacting us, which is why we try to get as many people as possible to file online, the majority of successful claims, the majority of that 1.9 million were filed online.
TOM: Is there any preference given to older folks who may not be technologically savvy as the younger generation?
ED: When someone calls in, there’s no way for us to know that the age of that individual or have any other identifying qualities about that individual other than where they’re calling from, the area code. So there’s really no way for us to know, but we do try to take our time with every caller that we get and we do try to encourage people that can go online.
TOM: Texas is going to start reopening on Friday where are the jobs right now – what industries are hiring people who’ve been laid off?
ED: Healthcare, a lot of distribution centers, Amazon, Fedex, HEB, Walmart, grocery stores are hiring. My focus is continuing to be the unemployment issue, but the agency is also beginning to pay attention to the reopening of the economy, and we want to encourage people to take advantage of the services we provide on both sides,