AUSTIN (Nexstar) – When we rolled into the Carver Library parking lot on Aug. 5 to interview Ashley Green, she’d just celebrated the four-month anniversary of filing her unemployment claim. The five-month anniversary of that filing is coming quickly.
“I applied March 29th,” Green said as she pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed up her online account on the TWC website.
“March 29th is the claims start date and then today is August 5th and it’s still showing they’re reviewing my claim to see if I can be paid benefits,” Green told KXAN. She drained her tax refund and took on credit card debt to survive those two months.
“I thought it would probably take a couple of weeks to get everything sorted,” Green said. “I figured I would probably have to answer some questions with the Texas Workforce Commission and then everything would be fine, and then I never heard from anyone.”
She also contacted Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, who represents Green’s district in the Texas House, for help. Green said the representative’s office never responded. We sent Cole’s office a message to follow up on Green’s behalf, but that message was never answered.
Green’s name was one of 111 names and contact information we sent the TWC on July 20. We asked more than 100 tipsters who contacted KXAN asking for help if we could send their information to the TWC. Those who agreed and had still not gotten through were included in the list.
The commission’s executive director, Ed Serna, asked for the information the last time we interviewed him in May. At the time, the TWC had turned one of its eight call centers into a center to direct call unemployed Texans who were unable to get through on the agency’s toll-free line.
“I would ask that you work with us, and by work with us I mean, contact us and you guys could help us, too, if you could share some of that contact information with us so we can reach out to them and get them that money they deserve,” Serna said in that interview. The call centers were making around 55,000 outbound calls each day at that time, Serna said.
“Anybody else, Jody, if you don’t mind, that you can share with us that you’re aware of will help us with some of the outbound calling that we have because, again, our goal is to push these funds out because we recognize it’s a lifeline,” Serna asked.
On July 20, we finalized the list and confirmed that each of the 111 names we submitted had working phone numbers and email addresses. We submitted the list to the TWC that day.
We gave the TWC a few weeks to make its way through the 111 names on the list. Over the next few days, messages started coming in that the TWC had contacted some people on the list and corrected their unemployment trouble.
Then, those messages slowed to a stop.
Green said she tried for two months to get through before simply giving up. The day after we interviewed the TWC about Green’s case, the agency sent her an email telling her the unemployment she was owed was being deposited into her bank account.
Roxanne Mueller was on the list and gave up on trying to get her calls answered.
Since April, the TWC doubled its call centers from four to eight. The agency also put more than 1,000 call takers to work, according to Cisco Gamez, the agency’s spokesman. Despite the extra manpower, unemployed Texans were still having trouble getting calls answered to have their unemployment payments approved.
“I spent Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday just on speed dial and called over 4,000 times,” Mueller told KXAN. Months ago, Mueller used the TWC’s online website to file her claim and was receiving unemployment payments without fail.
That is, until she missed a bi-weekly payment request filing.
“By 5 minutes,” Mueller told KXAN. The payment requests are supposed to be filed to let the TWC know a filer has not found work. Each filer has a specific day to file the request or they’ll be locked out of the system. Mueller had forgotten to file one Sunday and remembered at 12:05 a.m.
She missed her filing deadline by 300 seconds.
“I was panicking, I was having a panic attack, I was having anxiety because I didn’t know what else to do. There was nothing to do. I just reached a point where I had to stop because I couldn’t spend all my days just worrying about that,” Mueller said.
Mueller’s name was on the July 20 list we submitted to the TWC. She never got a call, but the day after we submitted the list, she got word from the commission.
“I got an email,” Mueller said. The message told her the TWC was reactivating her payments.
“I’m talking, missed requesting my payment by 5 minutes put me in this situation that I was absolutely cut off. So, I don’t think without y’all I could have gotten my payments,” Mueller said, “It wouldn’t have gotten taken care of if y’all didn’t contact them for me. It was lost, I was just counting it off.”
“There has to be thousands of people out there that have done the same thing,” she said.
“Those phone lines may be busy, but it’s not impossible to get through,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez told KXAN. Gamez is on the agency’s communications team, which is the team we submitted the list to on July 20. Gamez said he couldn’t discuss any of the cases on the list, citing federal privacy laws.
“The information you sent us was provided to unemployment insurance services,” Gamez said.
“For people today to tell us they were never contacted — why would that happen?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Gamez.
“I won’t be able to speak on behalf of people who were not contacted or feel as though they were not contacted. It’s not our normal system to have news agencies provide us lists of information for us to call through with them. It’s just not part of our system,” Gamez said.
The only problem each of the 111 people on the list had was getting just one of the 1,000-plus TWC call takers to answer the phone.
“We do ask that people try to give us a call. I do understand that there may be some issues for people trying to get through,” Gamez said. He says the best time to call is early in the morning or later in the evening. The TWC call centers are open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Gamez said he couldn’t confirm whether the agency did – or didn’t – call each of the 111 people, but that those who said they didn’t get a call likely ignored it, fearing it was spam.
The agency has processed claims for 4.3 million Texans since mid-March. Those claims totaled 24.1 billion dollars, according to data published on the commission’s website.
“With the call centers that are open with the 1,000-plus call takers, the extended hours, the 7-day-a-week operation, why would people still be having trouble today getting a call answered by the TWC?” Barr asked Gamez.
“We still are receiving a large number of calls each day. Those calls are generally not a quick yes, no, check a box and it’s done,” Gamez said.
The short answer: keep calling.
We made nearly 100 calls to Texans who contacted us asking for help. Some had called the TWC so often they were able to figure out “hacks” to bypass the its automated phone systems and reach a call taker.
“Just hold on the line and don’t enter any of the options when prompted,” a man included on our list of 111 said. That man, who asked not to be identified for this report, said he never got a call from the TWC, but experimented with each option in the commission’s toll-free line.
After deciding to listen past the automated prompts, he was placed on hold and after nearly three hours, the man said he was connected to a call taker who helped get his claim out of a pending status.
When pressed on whether Texans have any other option than calling hundreds of times to get through to the TWC, the commission’s spokesman didn’t have any other suggestions.
“With this report, what we want to be able to tell the public is: if you are in this position, what in the world are their options that they can take care of this today and help you all help them to get these benefits they so desperately need,” Barr asked.
“Our goal is to help everyone who applies for unemployment insurance. If they’re eligible for benefits, they will receive them. It’s unfortunate that some people are running into delays, some issues. In general, our goal is to pay as quickly as we can,” Gamez answered.
Again, just keep calling.
The TWC is governed by a three-member panel, each appointed by the governor. Bryan Daniel chairs the TWC and was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in July 2019. Commissioner Julian Alvarez, III was appointed by Abbott in March 2017 and Commissioner Aaron Demerson was appointed last August.
We requested an interview with Abbott to address the continuing problems plaguing some people trying to contact the TWC. A call and email message to the governor’s press office requesting an interview has not been answered.
President orders states to fund portion of federal jobless benefits
The Texas Workforce Commission is reviewing President Donald Trump’s executive orders relating to unemployment benefits, as states will be on the hook for a portion of updated unemployment benefits.
The President extended federal unemployment benefits, which expired near the end of July, though his $400 payment is only two-thirds of the $600 supplemental federal unemployment benefit Americans had been receiving.
The higher payments expired when Congress did not reach a deal amid negotiations for a new COVID-19 relief package.
Per the President’s order, states will burden the cost of 25% of the new $400 payment.
“We’re currently reviewing the presidential memoranda and will provide additional information as soon as it becomes available,” Texas Workforce Commission Spokesperson Cisco Gamez said Monday.
Gamez did not have information on the source of that state funding, the state’s ability to provide it, when it would be paid out, or whether Texans would get the money retroactively back to when the previous benefits expired.
“I’m sure people are are wondering how quick this can be implemented,” Gamez said. “We are working as quick as we can to make that happen and we will do so as soon as we can.”
Semi-retired teacher Bill McCormack and his wife, a full-time teacher both lost their jobs during the pandemic. The Richardson residents’ attempts to reach a TWC representative have been fruitless.
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“I have yet to be able to talk to a live person,” McCormack said, after five months of trying.
Upon learning of the President’s plan, McCormack said he was not optimistic the state would be able to deliver the money Trump promised.
“The state’s having enough trouble right now getting people’s benefits approved,” he said.TWC adjusts for new rounds of layoffs as Texas’ high unemployment triggers extended benefits
Since the week ending March 14, Texas has paid out over $24 billion in benefits using state and federal money. TWC has received more than 4.3 million claims in that time, which adds up to over six years worth of claims in just a five month period, Gamez said.Texans continue to struggle paying back TWC overpayment claims
Trump’s executive orders are expected to face legal challenges, because the programs he’s moving to continue require federal funding— controlled by Congress in the legislative branch, and not by the executive branch.
Texans seeking unemployment benefits can find additional information on the TWC website.
Thousands of child care centers still closed due to COVID-19
Jason Gindele describes a stillness that Mainspring Schools has never dealt with over its 79-years.
The sound of students echoing through the halls has been silenced. Classrooms are empty. There are no kids running around the playground.
“These are not easy times, you know. We closed much like everyone else did in March — in an effort to flatten the curve,” explained Gindele, who is the executive director at the school in south-central Austin. “We were actually close to reopening back in June and then there was a surge in cases around Travis County and we held off.”
According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, since March there’s been 3,098 reported positive cases of COVID-19 across 1,801 child care operations. The vast majority are staff which make up 2,055 of the cases, but 1,043 children have also tested positive. Advocacy groups say lack of information about COVID-19 cases at child care centers concerning
“The one thing that keeps me up at night is the idea that we open our doors in an unsafe environment, someone gets exposed to COVID-19, and that has you know some dramatic and tragic effect on someone’s life,” Gindele said.
The state’s data shows that nearly 4,800 child care centers have closed between February and now. The number represents about 28% of all operations in Texas that haven’t reopened yet.
“It’s a crisis for our state and for our community because access to childcare is essential infrastructure for our economy,” explained Cathy McHorse, Vice President of Success by 6 at the United Way for Greater Austin, which focuses on early childhood education.
McHorse said when families don’t have options for reliable and safe child care that impacts job productivity and there’s increased absences and higher turnover.
“What we find is that the COVID pandemic and its impact on child care is just exacerbating a crisis and a fragmented system that we had prior to COVID,” explained McHorse. “It’s exponentially increasing this crisis on our state — in our community.”
McHorse, who is also part of the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Child Care Task Force, explained that she’s hearing from operators about low enrollment concerns and the cost of safety precautions including cleaning and sanitizing. New COVID-19 safety rules for child care centers after previous measures lifted
“The cost of providing care safely under COVID conditions is adding costs of about $300 to $900 per month — per child – and that’s not sustainable for the child care operation to cover those costs, and it’s not sustainable to pass the costs on to families with young children,” said McHorse.
In May, the Austin City Council approved $1 million for the Austin Childcare Provider Relief Grant to help operations from March to June.
McHorse said the taskforce is looking for other funding options. She said child care operations will need help beyond a few months during this pandemic.
“We know our child care providers right now are forecasting that … without additional investment, or support with their revenue that they will have to layoff or furlough employees, those that are open and operating,” McHorse explained. “After that I imagine we’ll start to see programs closing their doors with no plans to reopen their doors in the long term, and that truly will have a profound impact on our ability to attract businesses and keep our businesses open.”
McHorse explained that the federal government authorized $371 million to the state for child care during this pandemic. She said $200 million has been allocated, but $171 million has been reserved by Gov. Greg Abbott in case it’s needed to fill budget deficits.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Child Care is Essential Act with a $50 billion relief package to help fund child care centers as the COVID-19 crisis continues. The U.S. Senate has introduced a relief package that would provide $15 billion for child care.
Advocacy groups including Texans Care for Children say leaders are negotiating their next move and it’s critical that they hear from parents and operators trying to financially survive.
Mainspring schools, which serves low income families, did get a federal loan for $230,000. Gindele explained that they used the money to pay for 30 employees, mostly teachers, for two months, along with rent and utilities.
“The support that’s needed for the child care industry is not just during the pandemic and doesn’t just stop when the pandemic ends. It actually has to continue for a short time thereafter because inevitably enrollment — while it’s down now — may not get to 100% by the time the pandemic ends,” Gindele said. “There’s got to be more bridge money even at the end of the pandemic to get folks through this.”
Gindele tells KXAN investigator Arezow Doost that they will need funding to survive and not furlough or layoff any staff in the months to come.
The non-profit is now fundraising, but Gindele said they’ve had to dip into savings to help families of students in need.
His staff now gets together regularly to box up clothes, food and books and deliver them to their families needing help.
Gindele said he can’t wait to get the students back in the classroom safely.
“The ages between 0 and 5 are just crucial, absolutely crucial years, for these children to develop in so many different ways socially emotionally, curricularly,” said Gindele said. “Those milestones are being missed and for a lot of these kids, especially at-risk kids, who are coming from situations where they may not have the supports at home to continue to develop they’re going to see regression.”
Texas works to address supply chain issues with electronic devices for students
As some school districts are beginning fall classes across Texas, some issues with getting kids connected for their virtual lessons are arising.
Mom of two students, Esther Spengler, said while her daughters were provided laptops by their school district, they had to share her phone on the first day because they didn’t have internet access.
“With just the one smartphone, we started one and then we had to say after about half an hour, we’re like, OK, we have to leave now because the other sister needs to tune in,” Spengler said.
Spengler said Leander Independent School District is working to get them a hotspot by the end of the day, but the process was frustrating.
“I never thought that I’d be in this position where I was, like, depending on the system to figure out my problems,” Spengler said.
“The state is working with school districts to make sure that there will be super-efficient hotspots, as well as laptops and any type of technology that is needed to close the digital divide, and already there has been almost half a billion dollars aggregated for that,” Gov. Abbott said.
That $500 million went to Operation Connectivity, which offered the option to school districts to bulk-order devices they needed for the school year. Just over 800 schools took part, but that funding does not solve supply chain issues.
According to information sent to school districts, there is currently a two-to-four week delivery estimate for hotspots, a four-to-five week wait for laptops and iPads, and a 10-week wait for Chromebooks.
The Texas Education Agency said Chromebooks are in high demand across the country.
“November 1, is what I’m hearing on the 6,000 Chromebooks that we have on order,” Abilene ISD Superintendent Dr. David Young said.
AISD later clarified that statement, explaining, “The actual date we have is on 3,000 that we ordered before Operation Connectivity was launched. When we ordered an additional 3,000 through Operation Connectivity, we were given the 10-14-week delivery date.”
School districts, including AISD, tell KXAN Chromebooks are the more cost-effective, user-friendly option. The TEA said school districts have the option of switching devices if the 10-week wait for the Chromebook is too long.
Gov. Abbott said in a press conference in El Paso Thursday that the state is forming a team to address the supply-chain issues.
“I have heard some stories, input, about supply chain-based issues, that would limit access to those devices. We have a supply chain team working in the state response that will be assisting the Texas Education Agency in trying to accelerate the immediate access to those supplies,” Gov. Abbott said.
While Abilene will have to wait for some devices, AISD said the students in their district who are in immediate need of devices have already been given one.
“We have identified about 1,700 students so far who have requested a device. As of today we have enough devices on hand to handle that number of requests. We’ve asked those families who have the means to buy a device for each of their children to do so, but we will do our best to accommodate each child that needs one,” AISD said in a statement.
The Harris factor for Texas voters
Less than a week before the start of the Democratic National Convention, Presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden picked California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for vice president.
With the pick, Harris becomes the first African-American and Asian-American to be selected as a major party’s nominee for the role.
It comes as polling shows the race in Texas is a dead heat.
So does Harris help Biden in the Lone Star State?
KXAN’s Tom Miller talked with Texas Politics Project Director James Henson to find out.
Tom: The race in Texas appears to be closer than it’s been in decades. Would that have factored into Biden picking Harris?
James: I don’t know that Texas was central to the decision, but certainty the things that Kamala Harris brings to the table are useful in Texas and useful in a lot of the battleground states.
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She’s kind of a very modern version of how we think about political identity right now. She obviously is thought of as a Black candidate — which she should be — but her background doesn’t fall easily into our kind of 20th Century candidates. She has both experience and a narrative as somebody who is an American, ultimately of African descent, she’s Jamaican though, and she’s also got this immigrant experience that’s part of her family story. Both of these are front and center in the way that we think about ethnic identity in the 21st Century and speak directly to Democratic constituencies and to issues that will loom large for a lot of Democratic voters — particularly people of color.
Tom: Texas has strong Black and Indian populations. Does Harris help Biden in Texas with identity politics?
James: The Democrats really need to open the spigot on voter turnout if you will, particularly in places like Houston and Dallas. Her particular combination of personal history and identity is going to speak to a lot of voters, and in particular to some voters that have uneven records of turnout.
With the rapidly growing Asian-American population in Houston, she’s going to have a narrative that speaks to people. To the large African-American populations particularly in Houston and Dallas, but throughout that band of the state going east, she has a lot to say and I think it’s going to help a bit with turnout. It’s not necessarily decisive, but every little bit is going to help in a state that’s as closely contested as Texas is now.
Tom: Does she have liabilities here as well?
James: Her critics will try to seed doubt about her past as a prosecutor, and then as an attorney general in an environment where people are really thinking seriously about how we have proceeded on criminal justice issues in the past.
There will also be some complaining along those lines about the fact that she is not as progressive as the most progressive wing of the party. Republicans are already trying to lump her in with the socialistic left of the Democratic Party. There’s not going to be a lot of grist for that mill, but that won’t stop the argument, because that’s pretty clearly going to be one of the general angles of attack of Republicans in the 2020 Dlection.
Tom: Bottom line, does this move the needle at all for or against the Biden campaign?
James: I think that this isn’t a game changer in any fundamental sense, but the Biden campaign dodges a mistake or some backward, some falling backwards, that has plagued some other campaigns in the past when they’ve made the vice presidential pick. It firms up the base that Biden has been building since his nomination, and particularly in a place like Texas it provides a little bit more for people of color, and even to a certain extent the progressive wing, to hang their hats on.
Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchia first met Sen. Kamala Harris 12 years ago.
“I was just texting Kamala three weeks ago,” said Anchia, a Democrat. “I really can’t even believe she’s the candidate, because she’s always kind of been a friend to me.”
Anchia and Harris both participated in a two-year fellowship with the Aspen Institute, he as a state representative and she as the district attorney from San Francisco.
“She’s a kind-hearted person. She’s incredibly thoughtful about policy, and people just love her, they connect with her,” Anchia said.
“I could not be more excited for the pick,” he continued.
Harris was criticized during her own presidential campaign, when she was one of Biden’s opponents, for her toughness as a district attorney and attorney general in California.
Despite ongoing debates over policing and criminal justice, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) doesn’t believe Harris’ record will dissuade voters.
“We have to have that balance to seek justice for all, so that everyone feels like they’re getting a just shake but to see that our laws are enforced,” Doggett told KXAN.
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa cheered Harris’ selection as the vice-presidential nominee Tuesday.
“Texas Democrats could not be more thrilled to hear that Senator Kamala Harris will be our next Vice President,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Senator Harris is everything that exemplifies what is great about the Democratic Party: a policy wonk who fights for the people, a leader who is willing to speak truth and stand up to those who seek to do us harm and a warrior for justice who has spent her entire life trying to do what’s right.”
Four of the past five presidential polls show Biden ahead of President Trump in Texas, a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat for president since 1976.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to call it a battleground state, but I think that the eternal optimism of the Democrats is closer to fruition this cycle than its ever been,” said Rebecca Deen, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington.