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More than 800,000 Texans are trying to apply for unemployment benefits as state pleads for patience

“I assure you that we will help everyone that needs help,” the executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission told the public Wednesday.

The Texas Workforce Commission is hiring 100 temporary workers to handle a crush of calls from 800,000 Texans trying to claim unemployment benefits.

The enormity of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact came out Wednesday in a Facebook Live event hosted by the agency’s executive director Ed Serna. The call volume is swamping TWC’s phone lines and website, with many would-be claimants complaining of constant busy signals and other technical problems.

“I know this is a trying time and several of you are very frustrated and understandably so,” Serna told more than 3,000 people who listened in.

As businesses shutter and residents shelter in place in their homes in several of the state’s most populous counties, employers have begun mass layoffs as COVID-19 has effectively brought business to a stop.

“I assure you that we will help everyone that needs help,” he said, asking for Texans’ patience.

Serna said more than 800,000 people have been trying to contact the agency, including over 100,000 calls on March 22. He said TWC has processed 150,000 claims this week -- far greater than the 3,000 it was handling before the virus outbreak.

National data on jobless claims is to be released Thursday by the U.S. Labor Department.

TWC COVID 19

Many people across the Lone Star State have questions about how unemployment insurance works, how it is paid, how to sign up for benefits, and how to use the resources of TWC to find new employment. Get your answers, now. #COVID19 #StayHomeTexas #unemployment

Posted by Texas Workforce Commission on Wednesday, March 25, 2020

If 800,000 new Texans are attempting to apply for benefits, it could trigger an increase in unemployment that the state hasn’t seen in decades.

Texas’ jobless rate of 3.5% in January, the latest month for which state data is available, was near historic lows that date back to 1976. January also marked the state’s 117th consecutive month of job gains. Nearly 532,500 Texans were unemployed in January, according to TWC data.

If all 800,000 receive unemployment pay, and the half million Texans who collected benefits in January remain on the rolls, the state’s jobless rate could surpass 9% for March. That data won’t be officially reported until late April.

At the peak of the Great Recession, unemployment in Texas topped out at just over 8%. The last time the unemployment rate in Texas was at least 9% or higher was June 1987.

TWC has four, fully-staffed call centers with about 700 people answering phones, including 200 unemployment insurance tax auditors transferred to call centers Tuesday. It’s also testing a work from home plan and working with AT&T to increase call capacity to the centers.

“There are more and more and more people affected by this,” Serna said. “It is an exponential increase.”

Serna said the state also is working to improve its online site and expects to roll out new functionality in the next couple of days.

He encouraged Texans applying for benefits for the first time to call TWC’s toll free number at 1-800-939-6631 or apply online. The call centers are typically reachable Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but hours are being expanded to weekends beginning Saturday. Call centers will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.

Texas previously relaxed rules for applying for unemployment by eliminating a one-week waiting period and work search requirements. Serna assured those out of work that unemployment benefits begin as soon as a person’s application is finalized – not from the time a TWC representative reaches out to them, since that could be delayed.

There also is enough funding to pay all claims, Serna said. If the state does run short, he said it would seek federal assistance.

“You should not have to worry … about us not being able to get you funding,” he said.

Serna also addressed several of the questions most frequently asked by service industry employees, self-employed and contract workers.

Employers of workers whose tips comprise a large part of their income should be reporting those tips as wages to TWC, Serna said. Tips count toward unemployment benefits and affect the amount paid out to the employee, he said.

By law, self-employed and so-called 1099 contract workers can’t apply for unemployment pay, Serna said. He noted that bills moving through Congress are expected to address assistance for those workers.

“It is our goal to alleviate the problems you’re facing," he said. "We have a great deal of understanding for what you’re going through.”

Connect with needs and opportunities from Get immediate access to organizations and people in the DFW area that need your help or can provide help during the Coronavirus crisis.

Dom DiFurio. Dom is a staff writer covering breaking business news. He writes about the companies and transactions that shape life in North Texas. Dom considers himself among the many transplants that moved to Texas from the crowded coasts who found more than enough reasons to call it home.

ddifurio@dallasnews.com /domdifurio @DomDiFurio
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