In just one day, 2.2 million people called the Texas Workforce Commission, or tried to call, each trying to file for unemployment after losing their jobs to a pandemic-driven financial meltdown.
And that’s a new normal day, in very abnormal times, as the commission is besieged by calls -- 60 per second -- and thousands of others trying to file for unemployment through the agency’s website.
“It’s very frustrating because I know that there are people out there that really need this assistance and they’re not able to get through,” said Ed Serna, director of the Workforce Commission, in an interview with NBC 5 Investigates.
“I’m sorry that they’re disappointed with the agency, but I assure them that we’re working very hard to help every Texan get the benefits that they need," Serna said.
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As the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus sickened workers with COVID-19 and forced businesses to close their doors, the newly unemployed turned to the Workforce Commission - a state agency with an antiquated computer system and too few staffers to handle the unexpected flood of calls.
Serna said the agency has tripled the size of its phone center staff, with 1,400 people now answering calls, but that it’s still not enough.
Asked if deploying the National Guard could help, he said, doubtfully, “The National Guard, you know, you could get the Navy. Whatever you need to, it would be a physical impossibility to get enough people to answer calls.”
Serna said the Workforce Commission has been able to help almost 2 million people process their claims so far, mostly through its website.
But there are problems there as well because it’s backed up by an old mainframe computer that, even before the crisis, the agency was planning to upgrade.
Serna said he wished that upgrade had come sooner.
“Probably the only thing is work to replace that older system, which we were already doing,” he said. “We were in the middle of negotiations for a replacement for that system when all of this hit.”
Recently unemployed and now trying to home-school her kids while also looking for a job, Debra Walton is one of the many who are frustrated.
Walton said she has been attempting to file for unemployment for six weeks, ever since her substitute teaching job shut down.
“I’ve tried that number every day of the week,” she said, referring to the state number listed for the Workforce Commission.
“I’ve tried it in the beginning of the day ... I’ve tried it in the evening,” Walton added.
She said she’s also applied online but was told she still needed to talk to someone in person.
“They really have to, you know, do whatever it takes to get their system up and running,” Walton said.
Many of the unemployed who have lost their patience with the Texas Workforce Commission have passed their frustrations on to NBC 5, saying the agency needs to find better solutions to help them quicker.
The state said it’s trying and passed on a request for help: If you’ve been approved for benefits, don’t continue to call for an update on its arrival because it bogs down the phone lines, and keeps others from getting through. The agency said one person recently called 1,000 times in a single day to check the status of his benefits, clogging the lines for those who have not yet been approved.