Texas Workforce Commission director testifies about agency’s performance during pandemic

The director of the Texas Workforce Commission testified Tuesday about how the agency has handled the historic flood of claims.

Texas unemployment from the pandemic is still high, but initial claims have declined.

But one woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she went months without unemployment due to an issue that was, in the end, simple for a TWC employee to solve.

"I kept calling and calling, ‘What information do you need?’ I verified everything. The third party contractors, pretty much were no help," she said.

The problem of never being able to reach a TWC employee is something TWC's executive director, Ed Serna, admitted to a Senate committee, is still a problem one year into the pandemic.

"You will have constituents tell you it is hard to get to someone on the phone at TWC, and I absolutely agree, I know that first hand," Serna said.

To illustrate the magnitude of the challenge TWC has faced over the past year, Serna showed Texas lawmakers what he refers to as an EKG chart. It shows the enormous spike in claims beginning in March, last year.

"It takes into consideration Hurricane Rita, takes into consideration the great recession, takes into consideration Hurricane Harvey. All of those things are a small blip compared to COVID," Serna said.

He said processing the huge number of claims has brought to light many flaws in TWC's system.

"It showed us where all the leaks in the hose were and where the breaks in the hose were, because of volume it pushed through," Serna said.

"Knowing where the leaks and breaks are, you think you can fix it?" asked Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).

"Yes ma'am, we had already started taking steps … to replace that unemployment insurance system, we just had to stop it because I needed all of those experts," Serna said.

What lawmakers did not address is whether the state's $129 million investment in contracted call centers is working. People have told FOX4 the line to reach a TWC employee is as clogged as ever.

"Feels like it is useless, what is the point in having them," one unemployed person said.

In the end, senators praised Serna for keeping things afloat with a staggering seven million claims.

"What do we pay you?" asked Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

"$189,500 a year, senator," Serna replied.

"Hell of a bargain with performance you've demonstrated," Whitmire said.

But people who have faced agonizing months without unemployment feel differently.

"I was in tears, I've been so frustrated and angry at this process," one woman said.

A spokesman for TWC told me in a statement that it takes two years to fully train a TWC specialist, so that is why the contracted employees are unable to be brought up to that level, but they are being trained to handle a wider volume of calls continually.


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