Unemployment assistance delays cause major strain on jobless

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Chasaity Washington spent nearly three months saving up enough money to get her own apartment so she could stop living in hotels or crashing with family members.

She had spent months working as an insurance verification representative and was finally ready to move into her new home March 24. Her excitement was soon quelled.

The day before she was supposed to move in, she lost her job.

"I was embarrassed. Being that this was my first full month's rent, you know, you want to make a good impression and I didn't want to start off (making excuses)," Washington said. "But, this is something that is very, very serious. Something that was out of my control."

More than two weeks later, Washington is still trying to file for unemployment as the Texas Workforce Commission's phone lines continue to be overwhelmed by people trying to put in their claims.

Texas reached another weeklong high with 313,832 jobless claims filed last week in Texas, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

That brings the total number of claims to an unprecedented 745,674 people who applied for unemployment in Texas over the last three weeks.

More Harris County residents applied for unemployment during a 20-day period in March than did in all of 2019, Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna said Tuesday in a conference call with the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Nationwide, 17 million people filed unemployment claims within the last three weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Some residents may see an additional $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits that were made available after the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, passed.

The TWC says that money will start being distributed on April 12, and that applicants do not need to do anything extra if they qualify to receive the additional funding.

"Within the next week or so, that $600 will be included in the regular checks that go out for unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance," Serna said.

INTERACTIVE: 13 Investigates analyzed county-level unemployment data. Here's a look at what percentage of the employment workforce in February applied for unemployment in March.
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In Harris County, 81,735 people applied for unemployment, bringing the county's unemployment rate to 3.6 percent, according to an analysis by 13 Investigates of data from the Texas Workforce Commission and Texas Labor Market Information.

But, despite the additional money that's available for some, the number of unemployed Texans is likely higher than reported because it doesn't include residents like Washington and hundreds of others who reached out to 13 Investigates saying they can't even get through to apply.

TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez said there are four call centers throughout Texas, but they are not set up to allow users to remain on hold so calls can be answered in the order they're received.

The commission is looking to expand to a total of seven call centers and has spent $330,000 on telephone upgrades and website upgrades to help improve the system.

"We have moved 450 staff from other departments into unemployment insurance to help intake claims, and we are working with other state agencies to bring in more. At this time we have over 1,500 people working in unemployment insurance services," Gamez said.

On Friday, TWC is extending its call center hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. But, even then, newly-unemployed residents say they can't get through despite calling hundreds - sometimes thousands - of times a day.

FACES OF UNEMPLOYMENT: Scroll through to hear firsthand how unemployment is impacting people across the state and share your story with us here.
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Kenneth Snow, of Cypress, said he tried to apply online after getting laid off on March 31, but received an error instructing him to call instead.

Snow and his wife Monique would wake up and start calling the unemployment office as soon as the phone lines opened. The couple said they logged 4,000 calls to the workforce commission the day after Kenneth was laid off. They even used three different phones, hoping one of them would get through.

"It's frustrating, and you're no further than when you first started," Kenneth said.
"We're in the same position as somebody that only called two times," Monique added.

Kenneth has other co-workers who are also trying to get through to the unemployment office. They'll call a couple hundred times before giving up for the day. But, Monique said she can't. She's too afraid that the one time she stops calling is the time she could have gotten through.

The persistence paid off. They finally got through Thursday morning.

"It has been a job," Monique said. "I've gotten to the point where I just have to walk away and just kind of get myself together and say, 'OK, you've got to do this' because if you don't call, you're not going to get anything so you have to call."

Carla Gill, of Magnolia, who was laid off from her job as a restaurant server on March 18, is thankful she was able to make it through and apply early on. But, now three weeks later, she still hasn't received any benefits and can't get through to anyone to ask why.

"I have yet to talk to one human being. I can't get through on the number, it's constantly busy and I don't know the status of my claim," Gill said. "We don't know what's going to happen ... or when we're going to go back to work so we're really dependent on this unemployment to help us. So whoever out there can help us with this, I'm asking you to please, please help us. We're in dire need."

Washington hasn't received a paycheck since March 27, but it wasn't enough to cover all of her expenses. In fact, when her son turned 16 on Tuesday she had to ask a friend to borrow money for a cake and ice cream. They spent the day inside playing board games.

"It was hard because the birthday money that he got, I had to ask him to kind of save it because I don't know if we'll need it for milk, eggs, toilet tissue, stuff like that. So it was really, really hard because 16 is a big monumental birthday," Washington said.

When she moved into her apartment last month, Washington said she was excited about the new start. Her complex is letting her pay rent in installments, but she wishes she still had a steady income.

"I don't want to start out owing anybody or adding on any extra stress," Washington said. "I had been saving up money, so I was really looking forward to me turning a new page, getting a fresh start and then with all of this happening, it just kind of put a halt on things."

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