Texans still face obstacles to collecting unemployment benefits months into the coronavirus pandemic’s economic crisis

More than 2.2 million Texans have filed for unemployment with the Texas Workforce Commission. Some are still waiting to receive benefits. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Inundated by millions of Texans trying to file claims for unemployment benefits, the Texas Workforce Commission has added four external call centers and hired staff to have more than 1,000 workers answering phone calls. The agency has also increased its server capacity from five servers to 20.

But months into the coronavirus pandemic, an unknown number of Texans are still living in the dark about when — or if — payments are coming as they face busy signals, confusing communication or no word at all. Meanwhile, they are staring down mounting bills coming due.

More than 2.2 million Texans have filed unemployment claims as the economy is being battered by limited statewide commerce during the pandemic and a downturn in the state’s massive energy industry. On Thursday morning, the TWC is expected to release the number of people who filed unemployment claims last week. Already, the agency has processed more than four typical years' worth of unemployment claims since mid-March.

Esther Griffin’s unemployment claim was approved shortly after she filed in early April. Griffin was working in customer service at Solis Mammography in Fort Worth before she was temporarily laid off in early April. But every time she requests payment, no money is deposited into her account, Griffin said.

Griffin’s employer reopened, but she couldn’t return to work because she didn’t have the money needed to send her youngest child to day care since she went weeks without a paycheck or unemployment benefits. So she lost her job altogether May 18, she said.

Looking for another job is “not an option” until Griffin’s mother, who is in her late 60s, is able to take care of Griffin’s kids without risking exposure to the coronavirus. Griffin said her husband works as a maintenance worker and has been exposed to the virus twice from his coworkers at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth.

“It’s just been stressful and nerve-wracking,” Griffin said. “It takes two incomes to take care of a big family.”

TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez said calling early in the morning on weekends gives Texans the best chance of reaching a representative. It typically takes three weeks for someone to receive payment, though that varies on a case-by-case basis, he said.

But Griffin said she’s waited longer than that and is desperate for answers.

“At 6:59 [a.m.], I’m already calling, and I can’t get through,” Griffin said. “I need to speak to somebody.”

Leander resident Gina Hinojosa, 44, is a preschool Spanish immersion teacher at Ivy International School in Austin. She was laid off because the school needed to reduce its number of employees during the pandemic. Hinojosa filed for unemployment March 28.

Three days later, the TWC sent a letter notifying Hinojosa that her claim was denied because she “did not earn enough,” according to the letter. Based on a Texas Tribune analysis of Hinojosa’s pay stubs and a benefits estimator on the commission’s website, it appears Hinojosa likely could qualify for benefits. Gamez, the commission spokesperson, said he couldn’t comment on Hinojosa’s claim for privacy reasons.

Hinojosa appealed the day she was notified of the denial and sent documents from her employer verifying her earnings. That was two months ago. She has yet to receive an update on her appeal.

“I tried calling several times to the 800 number without any success,” Hinojosa said. “We try to call the Spanish number and English, but there’s no way we can get through there. It’s been really, really frustrating.”

Texans can file an appeal within 14 days of the original decision. The appeal is first reviewed by what’s called the appeal tribunal, which is made up of the commission’s unemployment insurance hearing officers. The tribunal’s decision can then be appealed to the agency’s commissioners, at which point people can request a rehearing if they have new information.

Gamez said in an email that the appeals process hasn’t been changed at all because of the pandemic. In April, the commission issued a decision on 68% of appeals within 30 days and 87% within 45 days, Gamez said, exceeding the U.S. Department of Labor’s standards.

Leslie Shaw appealed her benefits denial April 9 but still hasn’t received information about the status of her claim. The 62-year-old accountant from Addison lost her job in March 2019 because she needed surgery on her leg and couldn’t work. But after recovering, she started looking for work in February, usually a busy time for accountants as firms prepare for tax season. But already, “everything started drying up,” Shaw said.

Shaw thought she might qualify for unemployment under the federal stimulus bill, since she said the shuttering of businesses to stop the spread of the coronavirus explains her inability to find a new job. Now, Shaw said she just wants clarity from the Texas Workforce Commission about whether she’s eligible.

“Not being able to talk to them after almost two months, that’s just ridiculous,” Shaw said. “I think I’m one of those that’s going to fall through the cracks.”

After De’Christopher Tatum lost his job in January, he quickly applied for unemployment relief. He filed another claim in February for good measure before the coronavirus outbreak began in the United States, but it wasn’t until March 17 that the TWC approved Tatum’s benefits and mailed him the notice of approval.

“We can pay your benefits,” the letter reads.

Now, more than three months after Tatum applied for unemployment assistance, he has not received any payments.

“We’re a fixed-income family,” Tatum said Wednesday of himself and his wife, Carolyn. “Once I finish paying bills today, I have $15 for the rest of the month. There is nothing I can do. I’m about to start losing stuff.”

Tatum, who lives in Wylie, north of Dallas, is worried about upcoming payments for rent, his car, health insurance, groceries and diabetes medicine. And Tatum said he can’t drive around to look for jobs because he wouldn't be able to keep his eye off the gauge on his gas tank, worried about spending to refuel.

“I thought unemployment was supposed to help the unemployed,” Tatum said. “I’m not asking for anything else that I'm not owed.”

Tosha Phelps’ 65-year-old mother all but forgot about her unemployment claim, assuming she’d never receive payment after it was denied in mid-March. But on May 22, more than two months later, Phelps’ mother, who lives in Austin, received a notification to start requesting payment. Within a week, a deposit for $5,000 entered her mother’s account.

Phelps said her mother received no communication between her claim being denied in March and the notification to request payments in May. Although she is happy to receive benefits, Phelps said the process left her mother confused.

“It really freaked her out,” Phelps said. “She’s nervous to even spend anything, wondering, ‘Are they going to take this away?’”

In Leander, Hinojosa and her husband have enough money to make it through June, tapping into retirement funds and seeking financial support from extended family. But on July 1, four months of delayed mortgage payments will be due. Without unemployment benefits, they might have to defer payments for April, May and June to the end of their 30-year mortgage.

A thyroid cancer survivor, the preschool teacher is in remission but still receiving treatment, so her immune system is compromised. Now that businesses in Texas are starting to reopen, Hinojosa said she’s having to weigh her health against being able to afford groceries.

“Everyone needs to work. My wife does as well,” said Octavio Hinojosa, Gina Hinojosa’s husband. “She loves her [students], but children can be carrying the virus without knowing and pass it along to a health-compromised teacher.”

Mitchell Ferman contributed to this report.