AUSTIN, Texas — As a record-breaking number of Texans file for unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic, many are running into issues when they interact with the overwhelmed service.
Erica Proffer interviewed the executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission, Ed Serna, on April 14. Here's what she learned in the hour-long Q&A:
Proffer: At what point did you guys realize that there was going to be this uptick in UI [unemployment insurance] claims?
Serna: "Interestingly enough, before the governor declared the emergency ... Our commissioners discuss unemployment appeals at the very beginning of the month. Our unemployment insurance director was presenting an update, said that he had seen an uptick from the previous week. We'd gone from 3,000 claims to 6,000 claims in that one-week period. And, of course, we were aware that the pandemic was occurring. We were thinking, 'We're going to start seeing a pretty serious uptick and a pretty severe one.' Nothing anticipated how severe it was because the very next day, we went from 6,000 to 16,000 claims that were filed. Then, it just kept going up.
We're not seeing the end of it.
Everybody had disaster plans, but not for something like this, this massive, that affected us so quickly and as pervasively as this one."
Proffer: When you guys noticed, sort of, that this might be something there at the beginning of March, were you starting to initiate some of those disaster plans?
Serna: "We initiated them and then kicked them into overdrive. The very first thing we did the very next week is we moved 200 of our tax auditors, unemployment insurance tax auditors, immediately over to our call centers. Our call centers have about 350 to 400 people that take calls and about another 200 to 300 people that are doing what we call working assignments. When you submit a claim, if it's not complete, it generates an assignment. So, we have also working assignments. Well, in seeing that the trend was shooting up pretty quickly, we immediately moved over 200 staff and then the management team, myself in the management team, reached out and started transferring in. Not physically because we started getting stay-at-home orders, but transferring in organizationally, staff from other divisions in TWC. So far, we've moved over about another 350 people to either take calls or work assignments. Within the first probably couple of weeks, we had immediately moved over 200-plus. We're moving over another 350, and we're still doing that.
When the governor declared the emergency, that gave us more flexibility when it came to being able to get the services that we need to provide services to our customers. Then, we began to take advantage of those and started looking at and executing contracts for call centers, on the equipment side, the IT side. We increased the number of servers because the volume is just crushing our system. We increased the number of servers from five to 10. We have since doubled it again from 10 to 20-plus. This system is an old system that runs on a mainframe computer. We've upgraded the mainframe computer, adding CPU and memory, and everything else we can do there, too."
Call center information
Proffer: Two centers are already in operation today. AT&T is now on board and you're working on a fourth. How many people does this bring altogether? What does that do for the call volume?
Serna: "Once we were overwhelmed, I think I mentioned it, within a couple of weeks, we executed our first contract for our first call. I think that's the teleNetwork call center. It's what I'm calling the smaller one. It was our first one. It's a smaller operation. They do good work with their smaller operation right now. I think they've got about 60 people. They started with 20, and they're ramping up slowly. Ultimately, they'll be at about 150 people. They went through three days of intense training.
The second contract that we executed with Accenture, ultimately Accenture will bring on board 300 individuals there. We use basically the rates that Accenture is providing to the Health and Human Services Commission. Accenture runs the call center for Medicaid for them. We created our own contract, but we use that rate structure.
It doesn't seem like a deal. But, I'll tell you, in an effort to help Accenture, we're keeping people from being furloughed or from being having their hours reduced to Accenture, though we're not paying what would normally those individuals would be paid. We're basically getting two- and three-year consultants that normally bill for about $150 per hour for about $45 per hour to answer our phones. We're getting MBA and other things like that. Call center staff, our call center staff, everybody, staff is really good.
We executed the [AT&T] contract yesterday. They'll start their training I think probably later this week. They'll come on line probably by Monday, with somewhere between 100 and 200. They're topping numbers also 300.
We'll have close to 1,500 people taking calls before this is all said and done."
Proffer: How much was the AT&T contract?
Serna: "It's going to be about the same as it – so it is about $7 million. So, so, keep in mind, that that's a, that's a top in number for us. It's not, you know, we'll reach that seven if we have to use the services for how long the term is in the contract world like. I'm sure everybody is that – this isn't going to last that long.
Those are ... ceilings for us. They're not, you know, we're not going to write a check for $7 million and say, 'OK, here to you.'"
Proffer: That 1,500 should be in place by the end of this month, or it'll be before then?
Serna: "It'll probably be close to the end of next week. Dependent on how long it takes us to get that, that fourth contract in place."
Proffer: To confirm, if someone has trouble getting through, everything's getting backdated?
Serna: "Yeah. You're not going to, you're not to lose any benefits of it if it takes you two weeks, two weeks to get in. We're backdating the claims. When you got furloughed or laid off. So, you don't have to worry about that. You'll also automatically get the $600 added on top of that. There's nothing extra for you to do if you already getting a benefit from us."
Proffer: You guys identified immediately before there was ever the uptick. You moved people over. Once the uptick happened, you worked to get these contracts in place. What took that two-week period to get these call centers or these contracts in place?
Serna: "Normally, government doesn't move very fast. In this case, we believe we did that. That first contract we had to do first was to determine that our system could support bringing additional people in to answer the phones. We have two systems in that case. The first is, of course, our unemployment insurance benefits system. The computer system handles all the people trying to use it.
Second, we have an automated call distribution system like this. So, when you call that 800 number, your call goes to the next available operator. I forgot to tell you, we have originally, we have four call centers in the state. One in Fort Worth, San Antonio, McAllen and El Paso. That ACD [automated call distribution equipment] takes your call to our 800 number and then gets it to the next available person, whether it's an El Paso, Fort Worth. You may be in Austin or in San Antonio and you're speaking to somebody in El Paso or the Valley.
It took a couple of days for us to say, 'Yep, our ACD can handle this.' At that same time, during that same two-week period that we're talking about outside call centers, we're also working with AT&T to get the 400 additional phone lines, which had nothing to do with the call centers but it's going to benefit that. So, an evaluation about a week. Negotiation of about a week from the time that we finally got to a bottom line and got that contract. That first contract executed was about two days. It took us about four days to get the second contract executed. Took us about four days or so to get the third contract executed. We're working on a fourth one right now.
To specifically answer your question, what we did during that two-week period is, one, we were focusing on getting service to our customers. Two, we were assessing our systems, both computer and phone. And then three, we were negotiating with the with the call center operators about volume."
Proffer: As far as finding the vendor, how did you know which vendors to go with?
Serna: "Every time we have a disaster, we always kind of identify. We do a little bit of vetting in advance.
We want to go through, for example, we knew we could get teleNetwork, Inc. very quickly. The second one, Accenture, we knew, could get to very, very large numbers very quickly because they operate, they tell a center for HHS. Right now, of course, AT&T, we're already a partner with because we run AT&T circuits to our call centers."
Proffer: Is [pay] negotiated on a contract-by-contract basis?
Serna: "We treat each one individually, and we look at the background of the organization is providing the service to us. We look at the capability for expansion. We look for organizations that can spin up quickly with big numbers and kind of be self-sufficient."
Proffer: This Accenture contract establishes goals. You'd be on hold no more than 30 minutes at a time. That handle time would be 10 minutes. Is that just their goals? Is that going to be across the board?
Serna: "It's going to be across the board. We're not asking Accenture or any of these contractors to do more than we expect to be able to do. And we recognize that the volume may crush it and we may have to adjust it, but we intend to hold ourselves and our contractors to the same standards that we're used to doing."
Proffer: If they don't meet that that goal, it is, does that impact the money that they get?
Serna: "There could be an impact to the payment but, more than likely, we're going to know before they do what's causing those problems. And if it's something that they can't control, just like with us, we're gonna work with them to be able to address that.
These volumes are so unprecedented that we may be completely off. It may be impossible to achieve no more than a 30-minute wait. Just because a lot of times – and we're going to take whatever time it takes to serve each individual. People just want to tell us the dilemma they're in, and we're not going to cut people off. We're not rude. They need to be able to tell somebody, 'Here's why it's important to me.'"
Proffer: You guys were having to go through betting processes to make sure people who are working in the call centers could handle personal information?
Serna: "We have a whole lot of very, very personal information on individuals. So, everybody that we're working with has got to go through some background check. We've got to make sure that they're OK."
Proffer: You guys are having to move your own employees off-site?
Serna: "We have about 75% of our employees working from home. There's some of us that come into the office, but it's pretty much a ghost town. We had to deal with it with the constraints of that. We also have in our call centers something to note. We have our call center staff working from home as well. Not all of them, probably about 50% ... so that we can make space in our call centers to provide social distancing there as well."
Proffer: So, all of that would have impacted the online servers for people applying?
Serna: "Well, some of it would've. It mostly just impacted [the] mainframe. Our staff goes straight to the mainframe. What it is [impacting the servers] is just the sheer volume of individuals trying to get in that that is impacting us."
Proffer: Do you have any updates on how many people are calling?
Serna: "We're getting about, oh, probably about 800,000 calls a day. At a couple of days, we've reached over a million. March 26, we were at 1.7 million calls. We added an additional 400 phone lines. We have several integrated voice response systems in addition to the people that take your call. We have, we had a total of about 2,500 lines. We added another 400."
Proffer: About some of that wait time –
Serna: "We're getting people that are calling us, who are trying to log on and filing a second claim. Even though they've gotten confirmation that they've got their first claim, they're finding a second claim. Or they're trying to call us saying, 'I just want to verify that you got my claim,' even though they got a message from us that saying we got your claim that they're calling us. So, we ask if we could get some information to your viewers that if you get notification, we must have we got your claim. We've got your claim. You don't need to worry about it. Help us help the other people who still haven't filed their claims yet."
Proffer: How many are the people who are calling to say, 'Hey, I just wanted to make sure you got my claim?'
Serna: "That number is going up. Unfortunately, it, you know, at first, it was just a little trickle. Now, we're seeing that as a noticeable trend. I don't have a specific number. I will say though, the majority of claims are filed online. So, 93 to 94% of our claims are filed online. The remainders are with our call centers. Call centers get a lot of attention because is the annoying busy signal. We're working on that, too."
Proffer: Is there any sort of federal money that's coming down that will help Texas Workforce Commission get that infrastructure that you guys need?
Serna: "Absolutely. Yes, there is. There's about $80 million coming to us in two separate grants. We've already received the first grant of about $40 or $42 million. These funds are intended to be to support the cost of maintaining the program. So, the outside call centers and our overtime payments to our staff, technology improvements for our systems, everything for the administrative support of specifically UI and improving the service to our customers."
Proffer: Will that have to be repaid?
Serna: "No, ma'am. It normally happens during an emergency situation. So, Hurricane Harvey cut down our normal costs, shoot up so high. In this case, they shoot up almost vertically straight vertical. The federal government will allocate additional funds."
Proffer: Today during the [commission] meeting, we heard a lot about prioritizing money. How did you guys come up with that sort of that decision?
Serna: "I think the money that you're referring to have to do with funding that goes to our workforce development boards. TWC and 28 independent workforce development boards make up the workforce solutions system, and they're funding primarily comes from us, from TWC, through our funding from the Department of Labor, though there are other funding sources from other federal agencies and from some State sources as well. So, what we were talking about today was designating some of the funding that they had already received, that we had already issued in the form of grants because we can't follow through on those grants because of COVID-19, the stay-at-home orders and everything else. We were basically going to reallocate from those grants and let the boards have more flexibility in how they use those funds to better serve the employers and the job seekers."
Proffer: What does it do for the person who got laid off or got furloughed?
Serna: "It's an opportunity for us to have funds available for them for training. We provide adult education and literacy training, skills training ... Most of the time when we do that, we have a community college and an employer that get together and say, 'This is the kind of training I need either for my existing employees or for future employees.' But there may be a case where a community college can provide some training based on past experience ... We're trying to develop electronic job fairs and other things like that where both employers and job seekers can participate electronically from their home and not have to physically be someplace on the employer side. It's to assist them with identifying job seekers and then also getting their vacancies posted or getting ready to post their vacancies once the economy starts cranking back up."
Proffer: You're teaching "them to fish"?
Serna: "We are. That's the whole point. And that's really one of the cool things about TWC is we don't really have very many we don't have any programs that are just: 'Here's some money. Help yourself.' They're really all about, 'We'll get you some training that you need. We'll get you those skills. We'll hook you up with employers or employers will hook you up with job seekers. We'll look them all up at community colleges to kind of get the best education out there.' It's all free."
Proffer: Do they contact TWC to sign up for those services, or do they go to the individual board?
Serna: "They'll go to the local workforce development board because the training varies from board to board."
Proffer: What is that essential worker fund?
Serna: "We've set up a program that allows us to fund essential work, child care for essential workers, even if they normally would not be eligible because we do provide child care. TWC provides child care to about 136 children a day, and it's for individuals that qualify.
Well, those are income-based qualifications. In the case of bar essential workers, a lot of times, they wouldn't be eligible because they're still working and their salary is higher than our eligibility. So, we've decided that our commission, the governor's office, that we need to take care of those individuals that are taking care of us from a health perspective and from food service and food service, you know, grocery stores and sanitation workers and things like that. So, our commission has modified our rules to allow us to cover child care for those individuals."
Proffer: A viewer said that he got approved but then denied because of the national disaster declaration. Is it true that people may have been approved and then denied?
Serna: "No, no. Once you get approved, you're approved. It could be that he reported some income to us, and then that would have stopped the benefit. I don't think it would have had anything to do with the declaration. "
Serna asked for contact information. Once allowed by the viewer to share, KVUE will pass that info along.
Proffer: One of the folks said there's a particular spot online where he keeps getting booted out of the system. Is that a coincidence?
Serna: "We don't have any kind of setting that says, 'OK, you've answered this twice. We're kicking you out.' First off, anytime we encounter a problem, you go all the way through the process so we can gather all the information we can. Then, let's say it's an online claim, at the end of that, we'll say, 'OK, we need you to call this number to finish this claim.'
That's one of two reasons: The first is some of the data is not matching our records that say you filed a claim before and you had a different name or the employer's different or something like that. The second reason is something looks a little suspicious in this claim.
We protect our customers and our customers' data so much that we'll end up saying, 'You need to call us. We want to talk to you.'"
Serna asked for contact information. Once allowed by the viewer to share, KVUE will pass that info along.
Proffer: If someone has a military pension, can they get unemployment from a civilian job?
Serna: "You are still eligible for unemployment. You just need to enter your military pension as income. Whether the benefit is small, you may still want to do it, but it's up to you because remember, for every benefit on top of it, there's that $600 because of the CARES Act."
Proffer: For recently hired employees, how do I file for unemployment with no proof of payment?
Serna: "If you don't have proof of unemployment, then you're gonna fall under the CARES Act, the pandemic unemployment assistance. There's a minimum benefit there. I forget the exact amount. But there's a minimum benefit there. But then again, on top of that, there's the $600. So, still file. You may get a preliminary response from our system that says your benefit is zero.
Make sure that you indicate this is, I think we have an indication indicator that this is COVID-19-related that you were let go because of COVID-19. Make sure you indicate that, and then you'll probably be eligible for some benefits under the CARES Act under the endemic unemployment assistance."
Proffer: Can someone quit work due to coronavirus fears in the workplace and still get unemployment?
Serna: "That's the one bad news that I have is if your employer is still open and says you have a job and you are uncomfortable about going to work, then you're not eligible for unemployment benefits or pandemic unemployment assistance. The only way you're eligible is if your employer has furloughed you or laid you off or closed down because of the pandemic or if you are self-employed or a contract employee and you decided, 'I can't run my business anymore until this is over.' But if you have a job and your employer has a job for you, you've got to do that. And if you decide to quit, it's individual decision. I get it. But we unfortunately can't provide unemployment insurance benefits."
Proffer: If a small business owner gets a loan to help pay for the employees, can those employees still get unemployment benefits?
Serna: "Let's say that a business says, 'Look, I'm not going to try to keep my doors open as long as I can, guys, but I need you all to cut back to 10 hours a week, 20 hours a week or I need you cut back your pay or something.' Whatever they decide, you should still file for unemployment insurance because that you report your wages, and that that'll determine how much unemployment insurance is available to you. Plus, there's the extra $600 of pandemic unemployment assistance. But, you should still apply because you just report as you would just report those reduced wages as wages."
Proffer: Is there anything else important for our viewers to know or understand [to] put context?
Serna: "The most important thing is we're gonna get everybody to help that they need. This is not just about the money. It's a lifeline. We're gonna help everybody that needs help. Our staff is probably more frustrated than the people trying to get in because we know we can help people. We just need to be able to get to them or them to us. So, we're working as hard as we can to get to be able to take care of those issues.
We don't normally backdate, but we're making [an] exception because of the pandemic. We'll get you the funds that you need."
MORE CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE:
- As business for tenant lawyers ramps up, Austin residents are worried about paying rent
- Georgetown High School laser cuts face shields for medical professionals
- 25 state attorneys general ask U.S. Treasury to stop garnishments of COVID-19 relief payments
- Total Men's Primary Care rolls out coronavirus antibody testing; tests not approved by FDA
- LIST: Confirmed Central Texas coronavirus cases by county
- Travis County commissioners approve hiring freeze for county employees to ease financial burden from COVID-19
- Torchy's Tacos one of several restaurants launching 'Come and Takeout' campaign
- Travis County receives a 'C' on social-distancing report card after Easter weekend