AUSTIN, Texas — From reopening certain businesses and restaurant dining rooms over the weekend, as well as updates to local City and County ordinances, changes to COVID-19 response are ever-changing.
But one thing is certain, thousands are still unemployed and claims still need to be processed.
It's time to check in with the Texas Workforce Commission.
Proffer: We are reopening Texas. How soon do you expect a lot of this unemployment to drop?
Ed Serna, TWC Executive Director: “Reopening of the economy addresses the emergency, the shutdown, which was COVID-19, but we have the oil field situation that is gaining momentum. About a week ago, I looked at the list of the top 10 industries that were affected. Construction and extraction, which is where oil field is at was number eleven. When I look at this week, it had made it up into the top ten, not the top, but it moved up into the top 10. We're seeing that increase. So, as we're seeing the other slightly come down and the economy opening, unfortunately, the opening of the economy isn't really affecting the oilfield industry.”
Proffer: Small businesses?
Serna: “There are small businesses that are affected in odd ways. Restaurants in small towns, hotels in small towns or in the new oil fields out in West Texas or in South Texas that maybe were not affected just by COVID-19, but that now as we're opening back up, some of their customer base won't be there because those were the people that were working in the oil fields and all the other ancillary businesses.”
Proffer: When you guys put out the guidelines, the high-risk had people 65 or older as the high-risk exception for being able to just stay on unemployment. Is that only for people who are 65 and older?
Serna: “No. The rest of that. Those referred to a source being the Department of State Health Services on their website. They have a more detailed list that includes people with other conditions that are not necessarily over the age of 65. The reason we didn't list those specifically and [instead] simply pointed to that source is that list may change. DSHS may add some conditions or modify some conditions. We didn't want to have something that was out there that was not as fluid. So, it is more than just people that are of a particular age. There are other health considerations. The best source for that is to go to the DSHS website. “
Proffer: Would you go by that alone? One of the DSHS categories is for substance use, like tobacco.
Serna: “It's going to be difficult for us because as much as we want to and we do defer to the medical professionals. There are people that may try to take advantage of that. There's always, I hate describing it like this, but there's always bad apples that will find a way to cut corners. We're going to rely on our neighbors, our fellow Texans who are generally very honest looking. Plus, a lot of people that just say, 'Look, I know that I'm maybe in that category, but I really want to get to work. I really want to get back to work. I prefer working than sitting at home.' So, that's what we continue to push that way, but there will be some that we'll have to deal with where it's kind of like tobacco or something like that.”
Proffer: You were talking about how it's going to be on a case-by-case basis when it comes to things like that. How long does it take to review those?
Serna: “It doesn't take as long as one would imagine. First off, when the beneficiaries submit their payment request every two weeks, there's a place there for them to indicate whether they've been available for work. And, if not, why not? That's what they would indicate, why they haven't been able to work. The ones that fit those criteria are going to make it through without us having to do any investigations. There's going to be some that are kind of a little bit vague, like, 'I didn't feel safe in the environment or my employer. I didn't feel my employer had a safe environment.' We have to reach out to the employer to get some information.
“I just finished a conversation with some of the staff about how we're going to deal with these exceptional, exceptional situations. We're gearing up in that area as well to be able to handle that. We're going to start messaging individuals to say, you know, 'Be as honest as possible.' This is not a one-time deal where we will say, 'OK, you got your claim in and we paid it.' Further down the road, we're going to be going back and looking at these. If we find an over-payment, then we're going to investigate that situation or a questionable payment. That individual could end up owing us money back because they weren't quite square with us.”
Proffer: They may have to pay it back?
Serna: “That’s not something that happens immediately. It's not like you submit your request for payment and we immediately determine that there's an issue. It could be that we say, 'OK, we're going to believe what you told us. We're going to issue the payment.' But later, we have other staff that will be reviewing those going, 'This looked a little questionable.' We'll reach out to the employer. We'll reach out to the individual. We may trigger an investigation and it could generate an overpayment, and you'll owe us money back.”
Proffer: What can viewers do if they don't know if they would qualify for high-risk? They go to the website, they look at how people are high-risk may say, 'Well, maybe I would qualify.' Is there a way to check?
Serna: “The first thing is we're going to rely on the honesty of the individuals that are filing their claim. 98-99% of the people are like that. We don't anticipate it to be a whole lot of people [who are not honest], though, because of the sheer numbers, it will be a lot of people down the road.
“Second, as they indicate the information to us on what that condition is, they can certainly add additional notes for us. We'll be reaching out to them. We're going to set up some additional opportunities for people to communicate with us outside of the still-crowded phone banks. We're going to set up some other mechanisms, and we're working on those right now for individuals to communicate to us saying, 'Hey, look, I'm uncertain, what should I do?' We're also going to try to put out some guidance right now that says if you're uncertain, here's what you need to do to make sure you get the help that you need.”
Proffer: In a [commission] meeting, you talked about turning a call center into an outbound call center. Is that happening?
Serna: “We were trying to debate whether it is one whole call center or some of each of our four to make it one center. By the way, it will be one of our four call centers. Our contract call centers are doing very well, but our call centers have the most experienced staff because they've been doing it for a long time. We're debating whether it's going to be one whole call center or pieces of our four call centers that make up a call center.
“We generate lists of phone numbers for the outbound calls. We have some staff that have been doing a whole lot of research on what it is that people are trying to get resolved that haven't been able to get to us, except for it being an initial claim. We can look at the individual's record that matches the phone number. We know that they filed a claim, but the claim isn't perfected yet, they've had trouble requesting payment, they requested payment but haven't received payment or they have some other issue. We're categorizing those, and we're going to be reaching out.”
Proffer: What made you guys decide to do this?
Serna: “One thing that came about us deciding to do that is the idea of having just one-way people calling in and then sitting there and waiting for something to happen or for them to be able to get in. Whether it's online or on the phone, and on the phone is the biggest challenge. We decided that this is not working, and we have had some success with our volunteers. Our volunteers, when they're calling out or are helping gather information, we thought that's been relatively successful. Plus, the other thing is it's a very practical thing is people need to hear from us, not just in these interviews, but they need to hear from us that we've got the situation. We're contacting you to resolve that problem. We thought that would also be a benefit. Contract call centers are getting better and better at taking more complicated calls, not just an initial claim. So, now we feel comfortable enough that we can take some of our staff and flip them to the outbound.”
Proffer: What should people do to make sure that it's not someone else who has ill intent, a fraud call?
Serna: “If you receive a call from somebody identifying themselves as being with the Texas Workforce Commission and they're calling to help you with your claim or help you with your payment, don't immediately start answering their questions. Instead, feel very comfortable to ask them questions. 'OK, if you're really with TWC, you'll know when I filed my claim, you'll know whether I try to get in on the phone or online, or you'll know some other piece of information that you put into your claim, you'll know what the problem is.' Most of the time it'll come from a state number.
“The ID should say 'State of Texas' or something like that, but people can spoof that too. So please feel comfortable challenging the person calling you. We're not going to take offense and our staff have already been told to be prepared for that.
“These are our staff who've been in the call center. They know customer service, customer support. They understand our business, our system. They'll have your record in front of them electronically. They'll have your record in front of them. They'll be able to answer questions to be able to have you feel comfortable.”
Proffer: With more folks going to WorkInTexas.com, are you guys going to be able to handle that workload? We're reopening Texas.
Serna: “Absolutely. We're going to be able to handle that workload. The unemployment side caught everybody flat-footed. You and I talked about that sometime back, not just TWC, but it seemed, grocery stores, distribution centers, hospitals, other states, everybody was caught flat-footed because it happened so quick and it was so intense. In the case of returning to work, we won. We know it's coming, and we've been preparing for it. We've been working with our 28 independent boards around the state, preparing for it. We've already reached out to the contractor that runs work in Texas for us to say, 'We need you to be beefing up our system.' They are. They're working towards doing that."
During last week's TWC Commission meeting, TWC said WorkInTexas.com can handle 25,000 people at once. Next week, it’s set to hold up to 100,000 concurrent users.
Serna: “We know that the wave has made it past the one-mile mark, which is the UI. Now it's going to make it to the other side as we begin to reopen. The other thing that I think will help us is under the governor's plan, it is a controlled reopen— 25% of the business availability. So, it's a controlled open, unlike the unemployment insurance side, which was just sort of an immediate the floodgates opened, and everything came in at one time.”
Proffer: You mentioned the regional boards. Are they open right now? Do you know when they will open physical locations?
Serna: “I do not know when they will physically open. I know that they have been open [online and by phone]. In Dallas, they had a virtual job. There were 1,700 individuals, both businesses and job seekers participated. They've been conducting training for job seekers online virtually through their contractors. So, they've been open, but they haven't physically opened.
“Some of them are antsy to open right now. We're glad for that. We've also told them to make sure everybody is safe. Keep your employees and your customers safe and healthy. Some of them are concerned about opening because of local requirements. We tell them they got to do the things that are prudent. Just make sure that you're still serving our customers.”
Proffer: What should employers do if they suspect someone isn't being honest and saying they don't have to work but they are eligible?
Serna: “There's a mechanism for them to let us know [by creating a fraud report]. We have had this happen before, unfortunately, where the employee said, 'Look, I really like working, but I have to take a pay cut and I don't want to take a pay cut to come back.' That's not a valid reason. Your unemployment benefits being more than your regular pay and you're not going back because of that is not a valid reason not to go back. We've had a couple of employers reach out to us and said this employee said this to us. In one case, the employee put it in an email that they responded to the employer. We'll try to work through that issue, but that's not a valid reason. Granted, these are unique times and the benefits are higher than they normally are because of the extra $600. But it's not a valid reason not to go back.”
Proffer: If they do something like that, would they be charged with fraud?
Serna: “They'll lose their benefits and have to search for a job. Their employer may have moved on and found somebody else. Now, they're going to have to find a job and start at scratch, start at ground zero. If you continue to receive payments, then you're going to owe us that money back from the point that you rejected that. That's a suitable work offer. You'll have an overpayment now that you'll owe us.”
Proffer: At what point would it rise to the level of fraud?
Serna: “If you kept collecting unemployment insurance benefits when you had the opportunity to go back to work, technically that immediately becomes a fraudulent situation. It becomes something that we would pursue prosecution on if it becomes a really high-dollar amount or if we see that you turned down one job offer, then another job offer, and you've made up a story about why you can't work. We'll find out because our investigators are resilient and pretty dogged. We'll find out that you really weren't living with your grandparents who were concerned about their health. You've been living alone for two years now and you've been in good health.”
Proffer: You expect more of those cases to come up?
Serna: “It's very unfortunate, but yeah, that will happen. We don't think it'll be the majority at all. Like I said, I believe the majority of Texans are straight up, honest and would prefer to work than not work. But it's going to be there, and we're going to deal with it when we get to it.”
Proffer: If someone may not rise to the level of fraud, let's say they claim to be in the high-risk group, and you find out that they know they are eligible to work. So, not only will they have to pay that back, will they be eligible for unemployment in the future?
Serna: “They'll still be eligible for unemployment in the future, some future situation that occurs, but that if they haven't paid it back, that over-payment will sit there and we will collect our money first.
“So, let's say it's three years down the road. They decided, 'Look, I'm not going to pay this back. I'm going to go back to work and get on with my life. I'm going to ignore them.' We'll send them letters, collection, letters, et cetera. They blow us off and then something unfortunate happens. You come back into the system, and they are eligible for unemployment insurance at that point. We will collect our over-payment before they get any payments. That's not a good situation to be in, because if you lose your job, you need unemployment insurance. You suddenly find out your first two weeks or your first four weeks are going to go to the State, they're not going to go to you. It's not a good time for that to happen.”
Proffer: Do you charge interest?
Serna: “There are some penalties that are associated with the over-payments. So, it becomes a little bit more than what you originally owed us. The debt never goes away constitutionally. That's not a TWC commission rule. Constitutionally, the debt doesn't go away.”
Proffer: In our last interview, you mentioned that the commissioners will be taking lead on things that would help people get jobs, get help people get training. Can you elaborate on that?
Serna: “[The commissioners] directed me and staff to prepare reports on what we were doing on what I'm calling the employment side versus the unemployment side. What we're doing on the employment side to get ramped up to help individuals, both job seekers and employers. We'll be making those reports. The other way that they're getting engaged is they will be developing messages that will go out to the general public. They're going to make themselves available to the press.
“I'm responsible for the entire agency, I'm responsible for operations. They are not. This is restarting the economy, engaging in that is a much higher-level activity. I'm going to continue to stay focused on the unemployment insurance side and these other issues that we talked about until that gets resolved.”
Proffer: What can a person do to make sure they cancel unemployment. Is there something that somebody needs to do other than stop requesting payment to cancel that unemployment?
Serna: “That's it. Stop requesting payment. When you go in to request payment, you say, I'm able-bodied. I got a job. I'm done.
“By the way, on the ‘request payment every two weeks,’ when you request, you don't call the call centers. You call an Integrated Voice Response System, do it online.”
Proffer: Do employers need to do anything that showed that a job has been offered, such as those who did mass claims or who was doing the Shared Work program? Do they do anything that's different?
Serna: “They'll report their employees and their wages. We begin to match up things. That's the other way we identify some of the fraud is when someone doesn't tell us they've gone back to work. We get a wage report from the employer.”
Proffer: Anything else that's happening on the TWC side that we may not be aware that you think is important?
Serna: “We've already touched on it. And that is, we know that you're honest, but please be as honest as possible. If you take a part-time job, report your income. You'll still eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. You're still eligible for the $600. Your unemployment benefit may go down. Don't worry. That doesn't affect your $600. But if you're able and ready, take that part-time job. Start getting that relationship back with your employer. If you have any issue, we would encourage you to talk to your employer and say, 'Hey, look, I want to come back. I just can't right now because I don't have child care yet. I can't take my child to another child care because child care facilities aren't open yet.' So, I would encourage communication between the employer and the employee. You had a good working relationship before, I would assume. Work on that and communicate with each other.
“The other thing is about the extension for individuals whose benefits have expired or are going to expire. We'll be reaching out to you, we've already started. We'll be sending more notifications about what you need to do, how you prepare for that and what we're going to do to get you those extensions.
“If your benefits have already expired, we're going to make sure that you get what you need. If your benefits are getting ready to expire, we'll take care of you as well.
Proffer: Anything else?
Serna: “We would encourage employers to communicate to their former employees or job seekers that they're looking at. All our services are available for free at WorkInTexas.com for both the employer and the job seeker. Communicate. It could be that someone wants to come back, but they can't right now because they've got five more days in quarantine. Or, they want to go back to their job, but childcare is just not available to them. The minute it is, they want to get back to work. Communicate with your employees, communicate with your employers and work through those issues. I think a lot of people want to get their good employees back and a lot of individuals want to get back to their good jobs. We would encourage that.
“The other thing is we have resources available. Commissioner Aaron Demerson and his staff have some really good resources to assist employers in helping navigate some of the issues that they must address. He's available to them, as well as our employment services staff and the board staff.
“I'll be the first to say there are still individuals that need to file that initial claim. For some reason, they've had trouble getting through, or they've had an issue with the claim. We are going to reach out to you. But please continue to try to get to us, find ways to get to us. We're going to get everybody the help that they need. Just because you haven't gotten to us doesn't mean that you're not eligible or that you're going to get shorted anything.
“We talked about the fraud, and I can't emphasize enough to individuals that to please be wary.
“The other thing I want to emphasize, we're not going to run out of money. Mathematically, yes, the fund will get to zero, but we will never get to zero. We have already requested to borrow money from the federal government, interest-free from the federal government. Money will be there. Every beneficiary will receive all of their benefits, the full amount. When those benefits are available to them, nobody's going to get shorted. Nobody's going to have to wait because we're out of money. We're not. That is not going to happen in Texas. Absolutely not going to happen in Texas. I want to assure your viewers that that is not something that they need to be concerned about.
“Last thing I want to mention is that it's OK if you go back to work part-time. All you need to do is report your income when you request your payment. We will adjust your unemployment insurance benefit. It does not affect the $600. As long as you're getting even $1 of unemployment insurance, you will [also] get the $600.”
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