Six months into the pandemic, out-of-work Texans are still struggling to navigate unemployment system

Volunteers load boxes of food into a car during a drive-thru food distribution hosted by the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin in June. As Congress debates a new coronavirus relief package, out-of-work Texans are struggling to make ends meet. (Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune)

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When Christine Brill’s unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission suddenly plummeted this summer, she tried calling the agency to find out what happened.

The 52-year-old Houston widow lost her job as a hair stylist in March and hadn’t heard that the $600 in extra weekly funds for out-of-work Americans approved by Congress in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic had expired.

But whenever Brill called TWC this summer, she encountered a busy signal, echoing the problems she first ran into in April, when she spent 30 hours a week for three weeks trying to find out why her initial request for unemployment assistance hadn’t gone through.

“How can you look for a job and log 30 hours a week trying to reach a live person that can help you with your question?” Brill said. “Someone figure that one out for me.”

Six months into a pandemic that has killed more than 14,000 Texans, Brill is one of 1.8 million unemployed workers statewide facing confusion — and financial calamity. As President Donald Trump’s additional $300 in weekly unemployment aid has dried up for Texans, a second federal pandemic stimulus bill has stalled in Congress, a temporary ban on utility cut-offs soon expires and TWC still struggles to meet the increased demand brought on by an unemployment rate that was 8% in July.

For Mariano Rodriguez, getting laid off as the manager of a truck stop upended his life. He had never been unemployed. Living in a trailer with his wife in Mount Pleasant, Rodriguez has already had to give up his cable and internet to save money. With the ban on cutting utilities ending at the end of the month, he said electricity could be next.

“It’s a crazy juggling act,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable because you just can’t get back to your former life.”

While the weekly $600 over the summer, coupled with monthly trips to the food bank, allowed Rodriguez to keep food on the table, he’s now four months behind on rent. Because he stopped paying for cable, he said he initially missed the news that Texans could qualify for the $300 that Trump offered after Congress’ initial aid expired.

Nearly 350,000 Texans didn’t initially qualify for that extra money, including some who failed to originally indicate they had lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Rodriguez doesn’t remember filling out additional claims, but the $300 started showing up in his bank account a few weeks ago.

“I couldn’t tell you when it started or when I should have had it,” Rodriguez said. “But the payments eventually kicked in.”

Brill is also unsure where the money is coming from and why the $300 payments are ending. She and Rodriguez have both lost faith in the federal and state government.

While Trump’s administration extended an eviction moratorium through the end of the year, Rodriguez said he doesn’t trust the federal government to assist people since Congress has so far failed to agree on a second stimulus deal that could provide further unemployment and support for those in need.

Rodriguez has planted his own garden to try to start feeding his family if all else fails. Brill is too anxious to do anything, but takes it one day at a time while Congress sits in a stalemate.

“All they’re doing is bickering and fighting, and nobody is helping us,” Brill said. “Nobody is helping us in one of the richest countries in the world. Get us another stimulus check. Add some money to unemployment. Get along and get some help to us.”

Congress struggles to reach a deal

Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday that the lower chamber will remain in Washington until a coronavirus deal can be negotiated between congressional leaders and the White House.

This comes after House Democrats, specifically those up for reelection in vulnerable seats, have increasingly called for Pelosi to negotiate with Republicans, even if it means passing a smaller package or putting up targeted bills to address specific issues such as unemployment. Pelosi, however, reinforced on Tuesday that she is still holding out for a larger deal.

“A skinny deal is not a deal,” Pelosi said on Tuesday according to a Politico report. “It is a Republican bill.”

Some House moderates are concerned that they will not reach a deal by November, which may affect their reelection chances. Stepping up their efforts to show their constituents that they are willing to compromise, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus created their own plan.

The $1.5 trillion proposal would create $450 in weekly federal unemployment assistance for eight weeks. After that, the extra payment would transition up to $600 per week, though the amount people get would be capped at 100% of their prior income. The proposal would also renew aid to state and local governments and provide another round of stimulus checks. Senate Republicans have already opposed much of the spending included in the proposal while Pelosi has indicated that she does not want to negotiate anything below $2.2 trillion.

U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is one of the three Texas House members in the caucus. He is running for reelection in a race that was recently targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to flip the seat from red to blue. The Cook Political Report labeled the race as leaning Republican.

“While extremists on both sides of the aisle have dominated the national conversation, seeking out the limelight and perpetuating gridlock, I have been working around the clock to advance a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package to provide my constituents with the support they so desperately need,” Taylor wrote in an email statement. “Families across the country are hurting and Congress needs to work together, rather than try to score partisan political points, to advance bipartisan solutions.”

TWC still scrambles to help unemployed

While the federal government has failed to come to a deal, the TWC continues struggling to keep up with the onslaught of unemployment claims and questions after paying out more than $2.6 billion to the unemployed.

In April, during a monthlong statewide shutdown, Texas’ unemployment rate ballooned to more than 13% — four-times what it was in January. During that month, the agency said it received more than 15 million calls in one week. With just over 3,000 employees, they could hardly keep up. Rodriguez said he stopped trying to contact the TWC after it proved to be such a time-consuming effort to get a hold of them. He’d rather spend his time looking for work, he said.

Others spent weeks trying to get in touch with the TWC. Lynne Davis, a health care professional from McKinney, said she called the commission more than 1,000 times, only to finally get a hold of someone on a Saturday afternoon, an overworked employee who she said was rude and didn't solve her issue, despite asserting that he did.

Finally, she contacted state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, who got in touch with the TWC and found out an option in a dropdown menu had not been selected, explaining why the agency couldn’t verify the health care worker’s previous employment.

Sanford’s office, which serves a more affluent community, has helped more than 150 constituents like Davis and started documenting the number of residents asking for help with the TWC this spring, when it became clear this was a widespread problem. While the mistake was fixed in minutes, and Davis did eventually receive her money, she said the TWC’s inadequacy only made a hard situation worse.

“It was a humiliating experience,” she said.

According to James Bernsen, a TWC spokesperson, in March, when the commission received more than one million calls to the hotline in one week, the agency pulled staff from other state government divisions to handle calls.

That month, the agency had 400 employees at four call centers. Today, it has more than 1,500 workers staffing eight call centers. It has also twice doubled its server capacity.

Bernsen said the calls have decreased in the last couple months. There were an average of 1.92 million a week in August and 1.6 million a week so far in September.

“The numbers do not tell the full story,” Bernsen said. “As you can see, the number of calls has dropped substantially, but the complexity of the calls has increased, which means the average call takes much longer.”

Bernsen says applying online is still the best option, but said people still having trouble should use a virtual chat feature or request a callback.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who chairs the Business and Industry Committee in the Legislature, defended the Texas Workforce Commission.

"We can't be too critical of the agency itself," Martinez Fischer said in an interview. "It's really the function of legislative neglect, through kicking the can down the road, through refusal to update our technology. We were operating with a very old, 1980s, 1990s style technology."

Still, many Texans are fed up that six months into the pandemic, the state agency still does not have the resources to properly and efficiently help the most vulnerable residents. With potential evictions and utility cut-offs looming in the coming months, Rodriguez is worried this fall could be devastating.

“I don’t want to be in need. I don’t want to be on welfare. I want to work, but the pickings are really slim out there,” he said, thinking of his neighbors and community. “The smiles are fading away.”

For Brill, getting through this week has been a struggle. On Monday, while she was sitting in her car in Houston, a man came up to her window with a gun and demanded she get out. He stole the car, and with it valuable belongings and years of paying down the car loan. She had just received the news that she had gotten a job interview this week, which she now has no way of driving to. On top of that, she had to make sure to request unemployment again, which she said will barely reach $400 for the last two weeks combined.

"I expect more from this country," she said. "Who's going to help us? Don’t take hope from people because that’s all they have."

Mitchell Ferman contributed to this story.