Unemployment Benefits

A job seeker looks at a bulletin at the Texas Workforce Commission's Workforce Solutions of Greater Dallas job resource center in Richardson.

The newly unemployed in Denton and across the state are getting busy signals or timing out online as they try to apply for unemployment insurance — and state employees are scrambling to catch up.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Ed Serna addressed the unprecedented demand in a short video chat Wednesday afternoon on Facebook. He encouraged people to keep trying. He estimated that about 800,000 Texans are trying to get through for help, including thousands who have never filed an unemployment claim before.

“I know it’s frustrating and scary,” Serna said, adding, “We will get to everyone.”

Furloughed Denton County Transportation Authority bus driver Jim Owen is among those callers who haven’t been able to get through to the call center. He is locked out of options online.

Owen, who usually drives University of North Texas routes, did not work during spring break and applied for seasonal benefits, just before the official furloughs began.

“Now I’m locked out until I can explain to them what’s going on,” he said.

Serna said the agency is still tallying unemployment claims for March, having already received 150,000 statewide in the past week.

Jessica Rogers, Denton’s director for economic development, said the city has not seen any reporting yet on unemployment numbers at the local level. Hundreds have been laid off at area restaurants and the convention center. Peterbilt halted production at its Denton plant.

Some national estimates put more than 2 million people out of work in the first wave of closures in the COVID-19 pandemic response. Serna said the claims are climbing at an unprecedented rate and have reached 30,000 per day in Texas.

“It’s almost vertical,” Serna said of the increase.

For example, the agency typically handles 13,000 calls daily in one of its four call centers around the state.

“On March 22, we received 100,000 calls,” he said.

Crews are boosting the capacity of both the agency’s computer servers and phone lines to handle the additional traffic, he said. In addition, hundreds of agency staff are being reorganized in order to boost their intake capacity.

The agency is adding Saturday hours beginning this week, he said.

“The staff work in the communities where you work,” Serna said. “They see what’s happening and are as impacted by COVID-19 as you are.”

Individuals can now call 1-800-939-6631 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday for help with their unemployment claims.

In addition, claims can be filed online at twc.texas.gov.

Serna also assured viewers that the agency would be able to pay claims.

“There’s enough, and if needed, we will ask the federal government for more,” Serna said. “That is one of the things you need not worry about.”

State officials have waived two rules because of the nature of the crisis. First, recipients don’t have to prove that they are looking for work in order to receive benefits — a difficult requirement to meet when many Texas cities are on lockdown. Second, the state waived the mandatory one-week waiting period before receiving your first check.

Hospitality workers whose tips were reported as earnings by their employer will be able to claim those earnings to receive larger benefits. Unreported tips aren’t included.

For now, benefits remain limited to 26 weeks. For benefits to last longer, the state must authorize extended benefits or disaster benefits.

People who are self-employed or contractors are not covered and cannot apply for benefits right now. State officials are watching Congress, which continues to debate possible assistance for such workers, Serna said.

State officials are expected to report February’s unemployment numbers on Friday, numbers that won’t reflect the current crisis.

It will be mid-April or later before state and federal officials have a full picture of the number of people out of work because of the COVID-19 crisis.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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