Texas Workforce Commission

Texas Spends $15M to Improve Unemployment Phone Lines, Callers Still Say They Need Help

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Some frustrated unemployed Texans still can’t get unemployment checks after weeks of trying to reach the Texas Workforce Commission through jammed phone lines. And if calls are answered, some callers said they still cannot get the help they need.

NBC 5 Investigates has learned the TWC has spent more than $15 million hiring about 1,000 additional contract workers to answer the state’s unemployment hotline. But some seeking unemployment checks report the contractors are unable to help answer certain questions or troubleshoot issues with more complex claims.

“It’s a mess. I don’t know what they have going on, but it’s an out and out mess,” said Matt Meyer, who is struggling to get his unemployment claim resolved while concerned he may miss the next payment on his family’s home.

Meyer worked in the West Texas oil fields and has been hit hard by the COVID-19 recession. He applied for unemployment online but then got a message saying he needed to contact the TWC with more information.

For weeks Meyer said he has tried calling the TWC each morning, but within a minute of the phone lines opening at 7 a.m., the lines are jammed.

If you don't get a hold of TWC at seven o'clock, you won't get a hold of anyone. You're wasting your day if you try the rest of the day.

Matt Meyer

Adding to the frustration, once Meyer did get through, he said the phones were answered by people who told him they were contract employees, not TWC employees, and that they were unable to assist with his existing claim.

“They can help you file an initial claim. That's it. That's it,” Meyer said.

Tonia Cox, an accountant who filed for unemployment said she sometimes waited on hold for hours trying to reach a person who could help resolve some complex issues with her claim. She said some of the people she spoke to were contractors who could only pass her along to the next person.

“Why do I need to stay on hold for three hours when you could have eliminated the middle man?” Cox asked.

At one point, Cox gave up on phone calls and tried emailing TWC Executive Director Ed Serna and several other top agency staffers. Cox said no one responded.

In an interview, Serna told NBC 5 Investigates he is trying to respond personally to each message he receives from Texans trying to resolve their claims and that he understands the concerns of those who have waited on hold only to reach a contract worker who could not resolve an issue.

“I agree. It would be very frustrating,” Serna said.

Serna said his staff continuously works with the three contractors the agency has hired to train and re-train workers who answer the phones.

“We take action with the contract manager saying, 'OK, this is happening, you need to fix it, need to bring your trainers back in so you can refresh everybody that's there,'” Serna said.

By dealing with more basic claims the contractors are supposed to free up more experienced TWC employees, some of which now make outgoing calls to proactively reach people with tougher problems to resolve.

There’s no doubt the TWC has faced an unprecedented flood of calls. At one point the number of inbound calls reached nearly three million in a single day, more than 60 calls a second during business hours. In recent weeks the commission says it has received about 200,000 calls each day.

Hold times for calls that are answered have come down from about 26 minutes in April to about 12 minutes in July. But the number of callers who have given up waiting in a queue for someone to answer has increased from about 1,400 abandoned calls per day in April to more than 2,600 abandoned calls a day in July, according to data provided by the agency.

Serna said the agency will continue to add additional contractors.

To the folks that say we're not doing enough, if you have ideas on other things we can do, I'll listen to anybody's idea.

Ed Serna

Serna said he is trying to personally answer all of the emails that pour into his in-box each day from people needing help. He even offered his email so that people can contact him directly: edward.serna@twc.state.tx.us. The agency also has an ombudsman that Serna suggested as a first-line for help: ombudsman@twc.state.tx.us

In recent weeks NBC 5 Investigates has sent Serna emails from numerous viewers who need help and many have heard back from the agency quickly.

During an interview with Serna, NBC 5 investigates shared some of the emails Tonia Cox recently sent to the agency describing how, without help, she is just weeks away from “financial ruin.” Within hours of that interview, Cox heard from an agency representative who began working to troubleshoot her problem.

As an accounting contractor who moves from one job to the next, Cox’s employment history has some quirks that make her case harder to sort out.

“I'm so over all of this is, it's not even funny,” Cox said.

And some other struggling families just wish that reaching the TWC by phone would mean quickly getting to a person who could help. Matt Meyer is still struggling as he tries to sort out issues with the way his employer reported some information to the TWC.

"And I feel like I'm, I'm at a loss. There's nobody I can contact. There's nothing I can do”, Meyer said.

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