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Q&A: Answers from the TWC chairman and public representative

The chairman and commissioner representing the public for the Texas Workforce Commission, Bryan Daniel, spoke about the economy and getting people back to work.

AUSTIN, Texas —

As Texas begins to open its economy, many viewers have questions. Erica Proffer sat down with Bryan Daniel, who represents the public on the Texas Workforce Commission and is the chairman of TWC, to get some answers.

Proffer: "Texas is opening back up. What's next for TWC?" 

Daniel: "You know, I think we have to really shift our focus from solely helping people with their unemployment benefits and understand the different ways that we can help folks that either want to get back in the workforce or even some folks who might want to make a career change during this time. So, we're looking at things like our standard employment services that we would deliver through our 28 workforce boards, but additional training opportunities for upskilling and reskilling folks who don't necessarily have to just sit at home and wonder about what comes next. I think there are some opportunities for some training and we'd like to make that available through our offices."

Proffer: "What's your recommendation to businesses? Maybe you have employees who can't return, maybe it be childcare issues or, you know, they're high-risk category."

Daniel: "We certainly recognize those categories and have been talking about it with folks. I think for employers, it's the ability to contact one of our 28 workforce board offices or even the TWC office where we know of a number of employers who are hiring. We've also found a number of folks who would be willing to go back to work. I think that sometimes people are waiting to hear back from the employer they were with right before the situation began. In reality, there may be some opportunities in the interim. I would tell employers contact us either through our Office of Employer Initiatives, TWC or a workforce board that they may be comfortable working with." 

Proffer: "What sort of recommendations can you offer to those businesses?"

Daniel: "Well, we've got some opportunities for it doesn't just have to be full-time labor that we're talking about. I think ideally that's what an employer might want to consider, but there are part-time situations. We have a program here called 'Shared Work,' where it's a sort of a blend of unemployment benefits and part-time work with an employer. There are more than one option that we can look at for an employer to try to make something work for them during this intermediate-term and while they're trying to understand what their business looks like for the long term."

Proffer: "Employees?"

Daniel: "For any employee, you have some opportunities here to maybe look at a field outside the one you were in. The opportunities for you to combine some part-time work, possibly even with your unemployment benefit. There are a couple of ways that our workforce boards and our TWC offices can help point you in a direction where we know people are hiring. We do spend some time helping "matchmaking" and I guess is what I would call it. It Is helping employers who are looking for employees and folks who are looking for a job.  We help them make sure they know who is doing what so they can make better decisions."

Proffer: "Now that we're in the recovery phase, anything that you would do differently if a COVID-19 situation like this returned?"

Daniel: "That's a big question because we made so many enhancements to our system as we worked through the first part of the COVID-19 situation in terms of adding capacity for phone calls, adding computing capacity. That's not going to go away. We're going to have that next time. I think the biggest problems that we faced were the sheer volume and just not having the full complement of tools that we needed to deal with that volume. In a situation where we saw maybe a resurgence of COVID-19 itself, all of those sorts of tactical tools that we put in place to deal with volume remain in place to this very day. There were times we were receiving nearly 4,000 phone calls every minute, every 60 seconds. You can never put it in enough circuits to deal with all of that. Through computer technology, through just sometimes some creative computing, we have found ways to talk to folks, hear what they need and then be able to get that put into place. So, we've used a lot of technology to help position us for what may or may not be future COVID needs, but even other types of needs that may go beyond that."

Proffer: "How is the backlog right now?"

Daniel: "The backlog is shrinking on a weekly basis. The total number of callers we're getting per day continues to decline. Now, having said that, there's still a number of people who are still trying to file an initial claim. We are working hard to get to those folks and get their information put into the system. That will continue. The overall numbers are declining, which means the backlog is declining. It's been cut in half in the last two weeks just in terms of people who have a partial claim in the system, but need additional information, and need some particular attention. We've been watching that number come down day-to-day-to-day. That's a good thing."

"There are folks still on that list. We've got to be able to get some help to the people that are waiting, but we're able to put more and more people on what is a shrinking pool of people."

 Proffer: "What is the job search like right now?"

Daniel: "Well, we still have employers that are looking for folks. I think that using 'WorkInTexas' and some tools like that, we're seeing that start up. This is the beginning stage of the job search. Typically when a person is on unemployment benefits, there's a requirement that they look for work each week. We haven't turned that back on, yet. We're still understanding that the COVID-19 situation is still a little bit on the front end. We're trying to understand the best we can when we can effectively turn that work search requirement back on. It's really not a punitive thing. It's really a thing that's designed to keep the economy going. We know that there will be jobs when this clears up, to the point where we can really open things back up in a little more holistic kind of way. We need to know that folks are keeping track of that. It's early. We are seeing employers who are hiring. We continue to see employers every day who are looking for people. That number is growing in terms of interest. We haven't quite seen the kind of activity that would say, 'hey, we need to really get some special programs in place and help move people to this job or that job.' We're trying to be pretty thoughtful about it. I think that we don't want to rush into this at the same time. We know we've got to take some tools and use those to keep the economy in the best shape we can."

Proffer: "Do you have an idea on when that work search will be reinstated? "

Daniel: "I don't. I'm anxious to talk with the Governor's Office, to hear the Governor's announcement next week where the Strike Force is in terms of real estate. You know, we talk to the medical teams and others, but that view that we get from the governor's announcement, we'll know then kind of what that time frame is.  And even having said that, on the day we make the decision, it will be a few weeks from that day before that happens. People need time to build that into their daily lives and understand what that's going to look like for them. I don't want to accidentally trip someone up on their benefits because we've put something in place."

Proffer: "What type of training is available through like Texas Workforce Commission grants or the Workforce Solutions offices for folks?"

Daniel: "About $30 million have been put forward to what we would call 'employee services.' The training itself is actually pretty interesting because we've done some research by region to understand what of the in-demand jobs are.  It seems like they're going to be by each region. We're making training available within those in-demand jobs. I would tell anybody listening, don't lock yourself into I have to do a specific kind of training. Visit with your Workforce Solutions office, visit with us at TWC because we're spanning across several different professions right now. Have the ability to get some training from some commission approved trainers in each of those areas. More money's been made available for Texans to do that. So, unfortunately, it is I think there's some questions folks need to answer. I say unfortunately, because you can't just start today.  But so much of this training is going to be distance learning. So much of this training is going to be some synchronous learning using technology versus face to face. And so something folks can do from home, particularly in these high demand jobs where we know you can get back to work."

Proffer: "How much money has TWC spent on benefits?"

Daniel: "We're between $5.5 billion and $6 billion right now in terms of benefits that are paid out. Most people at this point are past the initial claims status or going into payment status. That's happening every other week right now. We will not run out of money for benefits. We have access to what I would characterize as a line of credit that Washington has made available to us interest-free at this point through the end of the year. This is a source of funds that we can access. In the past, typically in a disaster situation, we would have access to this type of funds same as we did here. The fact of the matter is that it acts like a line of credit for us that helps us continue to pay claims as we take in collections from employers who are continuing to pay their assessments based on their payroll."

Proffer: "If you are making money right now off of unemployment benefits than you did at your previous work, what's sort of that incentive for the person to go back to work?"

Daniel: "That's a tough situation. I think a lot of folks are looking at that. There's a couple of things that are built into the law that we have to consider TWC. For example, if your employer offers you your job back and you decline, you need to be certain you're in one of the groups that we've identified should be declining. Folks who have risk factors, folks who may be quarantined, or lack child care. Be sure you're on that list if you decline. If not, TWC is required by law to take a look at that and it's possible your employer would let us know that you decline it."

Proffer: "But are you guys taking a look at that?"

Daniel: "We will because we're obligated to by law, but at this point, we're more interested in making sure that everybody who needs to be signed up for benefits is signed up for benefits. We will ultimately have to turn our attention to [investigations]. As employers let us know that, we have a team that's put in place to look exactly at that. There's a long term view for anyone who's on benefits and wondering if I should just stay on benefits that might be in excess of my salary. Those benefits are scheduled to end right now in July. What's putting your benefits at that level is this a federal enhancement of $600 per payment. That ends at the end of July, and then it changes the equation entirely. I would hope that people look past that and understand if I get a decent or good job offer right now, I might lose perceptively a little in the short term but long term, I'll have a job that I can count on. I can understand how households are making this calculation, but there's more factors at play here in terms of the temporary nature of the payment. The idea that if you were offered work that was good work and suitable to your skills and someone tells us you declined, at some point, we will have to take a look at that."

Proffer: "What do you expect to happen in the next few months for unemployment in the job market?"

Daniel: "I think we're going to continue to see the high levels of unemployment that we're hearing reported. We haven't completed our analysis of the April numbers, but it's no secret to anybody that the 3.5% unemployment we used to enjoy in Texas, that's just not going to be the case. It's that way nationwide. Texas isn't any higher than what we're seeing in the other states. This has hit the whole nation the way it's hit Texas. What I mean by that is it's not as if people are leaving the state to work somewhere else. It is a situation where people are on unemployment benefits. It's our job to help people understand those benefits and put tools in place that can help them be ready to go back to work when things open, back up."

"So much of this is dependent on how we are able to manage COVID-19. I think that the health authorities here in Texas are getting a clearer picture of what the virus is, how it acts and how it's moving through communities. I think you're seeing a very measured approach by the Governor in terms of helping businesses find ways to reopen and create those jobs. So, you know, whether it's next week or next month or even September, the things we're planning for, for the future are optimistic."

Proffer: "You have a deep history in rural Texas. So, do you have any advice for folks who live out there?"

Daniel: "Rural areas face issues like this one differently than the urban areas. It becomes a function of population density and the distance between things. In a rural area, you have jobs that are more dependent on agriculture, oil and gas, but certainly some manufacturing and technology jobs as well.  It is a different scenario for them and it requires a different set of tools in terms of bringing those jobs back on. The oil and gas situation is actually somewhat separate from the COVID-19 situation in terms of commodity prices moving up and down there. And we've seen some activity there in terms of some job loss and some other things."

"In those workforce boards, they're going to approach that a little bit differently in looking at ways to get people who've lost their jobs back to work. It's no secret that in rural areas, the overall number of job availability is lower. Sometimes that's a function of population. Sometimes it's a function of what kind of jobs that are out there.  I think that in the analysis I do because of my history, I look at the rural areas and maybe sometimes separately from the others because I understand their needs. But we have solutions that we can spread across all those areas and we don't try to do a 'one size fits all' approach because I think that unique circumstances usually call for unique solutions."

"This is a different part of the state with different industries and perhaps even a unique culture to that city. That's the real strength of our workforce boards. It's local leaders. It's people selected by locally elected leaders with professional executive directors that are out there. They're able to tailor things to that region, to that community. I think those community solutions are probably stronger than us trying to devise a plug-and-play system here in Austin."

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