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Texas Workforce Commission shows problems still remain 16 months after the unemployment surge

Extended unemployment benefits will end in September. Texas unemployment rate is 6.2%, lowest for the pandemic. People trying to get help now may still have trouble.

AUSTIN, Texas — You’d think by now, 16 months into the pandemic, the unemployment claim process would be easier.

It would be smoother.

“This is a nightmare,” James Brown told KVUE over the summer.

After the KVUE Defenders told you about Brown's ID verification problem and how it got fixed, people around the state reached out for help.

“From Google News, that's how I found you,” Ivette Diaz said.

Diaz’s husband Fabian Benitez lost his job April 20. He said he received unemployment for a few weeks, but then he couldn’t make a payment request.

“They said I was getting some technical problems every time I made the phone calls.  They never explained the technical problem,” Benitez said.

When the family applied for food stamps, Benitez said it showed he was still getting paid unemployment.

“In their eyes, they see that he’s getting unemployment. I'm like, ’No, he's not,’” Diaz said.

“I was reading the story and I'm like, ‘This is the exact same thing they put me through,’” Pamela Moore said.

Moore said she was referred to three different id-verification pages on the TWC website, but could never get her payment.

“They said it was identity fraud, identity theft. I said, ‘My social security is all over your website somewhere,’” Moore said. 

“I figured, what the heck here? You don't have anything to lose and everything to gain from it,” Carrie Myers said.

Myers also had trouble getting through the ID verification process.

“I've done it like four times now,” Myers said.

She said she faced eviction.

“I asked her [landlord] to just please hold on for another week, at least. I'm working with somebody with the news that maybe will help us. And so she told me, she said, ‘Don't worry, I'll give you another week,’” Myers said.

“I don't understand. What did they want me to do?” said Dee Dee Haskins.

Haskins lost her benefits after returning from her father’s funeral.

“I’m numb. Feel numb,” Haskins said.

Haskins' dad suffered a heart attack.

“I just gotta keep pushing, I gotta keep pushing.  There is nothing else I can do,” Haskins said. 

Her father lived in Maryland, where Haskins grew up. She said she accepted a job offer in Texas. The funeral was a few days before the job began. She had to stay to settle family matters.

“It was a great opportunity. I would have loved to have started, of course, making more money and working from home. Who wouldn't want to pass that up? Why? But unfortunately, I couldn't. I had to go back home. I had to go back home,” Haskins said.

Haskins said she asked the employer if she could delay the start date and was told they would consider her again later.

Because she didn’t start that job, Texas Workforce Commission considered her case a “refusal to work.”

“Should I have not gone to my father's funeral? What did they want me to do?” Haskins said.

The State spent $1.75 million for a verification program called ID.me. The software can misread a government ID. In July, TWC's executive director told us each case must then be reviewed by hand.

“There are other tools that are not as effective or that are a little bit more experimental than ID.me. We didn't want to start branching off to start adding other tools that may not work more effectively,” Ed Serna, TWC Executive Director said.

The Department of Labor recently backed the company, offering it nationwide. The Better Business Bureau showed 849 Complaints Sept. 3.

“So many, so many problems are like, why me?” Benitez said.

Myers said she sent a signed affidavit to prove her identity. Her former boss sent a letter. She gave copies of her ID front and back along with her social security card and a bank statement.

“I don't know what else these people want from me,” Myers said.

“You try to get information from them and they won’t say anything,” Benitez said.

TWC contracted with four call centers at the start of the pandemic. A new “customer care division” was created Sept. 1. The division will funnel all calls to TWC to the proper department.

"The intent of that division is it will be a main door into both TWC and the workforce system so that someone that doesn't know that we provide child care or all these other services," Serna said. "All they have to do is get to that one place and they can get the service that they need."

"Our goal is to take inquiries from any of our customers (employers, unemployment insurance claimants, job seekers, grant recipients, etc.) and either assist them directly or get them to not only the right person who can address their needs, but help connect them to other services that would benefit them," a TWC Spokesperson said.

The division will handle all initial incoming calls, including people needing unemployment benefits.

"Our goal will be to either assist the customer directly or transfer callers directly to staff who can immediately assist them," the spokesperson said. "If necessary, our customer care representatives will schedule a call back time so our customer doesn’t have to wait on the line or call someone else themselves. When appropriate, we will also inform customers of other services TWC offers in addition to what they may be contacting us about during their initial contact with us. For example, if an individual has lost their job, they may also be in need of childcare assistance or other services. We want to not only assist them to get the help they need, but let them know about our other services that can benefit them."

TWC told KVUE there is no reason for a person’s account to disappear, like Benitez said.

“People should be able to access their account at any time unless there is system maintenance occurring or they do not remember their UserID or password,” the spokesperson said.

The State won’t tell us anything about an individual case and said emergencies are handled on a case-by-case basis writing, “To continue to be eligible for unemployment benefits, you must be totally or partially unemployed (working part time) and meet all of the requirements listed below:

  • Meet all work search requirements, unless we exempt you from work search
  • Request payment for weeks of unemployment, when scheduled
  • Be physically and mentally able to work
  • Be available for full-time work
  • Participate in reemployment activities as required
  • Respond to requests from TWC or a Workforce Solutions office as instructed

“You may refuse to return to work or refuse to accept an offer of suitable work if you have good cause. TWC determines you have good cause to refuse work if: 

  • The work poses a risk to your health, safety, or morals
  • The work is vacant directly because of a strike, lockout, or other labor dispute
  • The wages, hours, or other conditions of the work are substantially less favorable than similar work in your area
  • The work requires you to join a company union
  • The work requires you to resign from a labor organization

“This has been so stressful,” Haskins said.

Haskins had another chance to plead her case, but the result stayed the same. She did not get her benefits. As of Sept. 3, Haskins is employed again.

Benitez did not have access to his account at the beginning of September, but says he doesn’t need benefits now. He, too, is back at work.

Any back pay for Haskins and Benitez is not available unless their claim is fixed.

“It is frustrating,” Moore said.

After the KVUE Defenders contacted TWC, Moore and Myers proved they are legitimate claimants. They received their money. 

At the start of the pandemic, TWC moved employees from other areas, pulled in legislative staff, and got other government workers to help field calls.

Serna said stories like these are few compared to the tens of thousands requests they still get.

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