North Texans trying to file for unemployment insurance and benefits are reporting issues with the Texas Workforce Commission’s website and inability to reach anyone over the phone.
Monica Smith of Dallas worked as a supervisor at a spa, which closed on March 16 due to COVID-19 concerns. Since then, she has tried to apply for unemployment every day.
“It just takes my social security number, asks me to put in a PIN and then directs me to a phone number to call,” Smith said, referring to the website.
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This is as far as she has been able to get, she said.
“When you call, it’s like you absolutely cannot get through. I’ve called at least 15 to 20 times within the hour, on the hour,” she told NBC 5. “Either it’s busy, you completely can’t get through or there’s an answering machine to let you know there’s a high call volume and they can’t accept your phone call at this time.”
This is a similar experience shared by Molly Davis, who is helping her neighbor file for unemployment. Her neighbor is self-employed, owning an aikido studio.
“The new forms on the TWC website don’t account for people that are self-employed,” Davis said. “That’s been an incredibly frustrating part about this whole process – is that the calls are dropped. If it’s on hold, it’s just a hold sound and there’s no indication that somebody’s going to pick up my call.”
Cisco Gamez with the Texas Workforce Commission said people who are self-employed or independent contractors may be eligible for Texas unemployment insurance, in addition to the stimulus package which was just released.
“We are in the process of upgrading our system to adapt the new legislation,” Gamez said. “We want to help Texans in need and we will help Texans in need. Just give us that opportunity.”
In the past 18 days, the TWC has helped more than 500,000 Texans file for unemployment claims over phone and online.
“If we keep on this pace, we are likely to help the same number or more of people we helped last year in all of 2019 which was over 700,000 people,” he said.
On Wednesday, the TWC launched a new “chat bot” to help answer questions on the process. It aims to relieve pressure on the website and call centers, which have seen a spike in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Before COVID 19, on average, the Texas Workforce Commission received about 13,000 calls on an average day. Right now, the 1-800 numbers are receiving about, sometimes, 1.5 million calls in a 24 hour period,” Gamez said. “I don’t know any call center that can handle 1.5 million calls in a single day.”
Though not all of those million-plus calls are related to unemployment, Gamez said they have been working extended hours and into the weekend.
“We have over a 1,000 people in unemployment insurance services working. We’ve moved an additional 200 people from other departments into unemployment insurance services to help,” he said, adding they do plan to hire more people.
The workforce is asking people to be patient as they navigate through the spike in demand.
For Smith, patience is running thin.
“It gets to the point where you’re like, 'how am I going to feed myself? How am I going to feed my pet? How am I going to pay my phone bill? The light bill?' Every bill you have. I mean, it’s like crunch time,” she said.
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