'No end in sight' for unemployed as 6.6 million more apply

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As Adrianna Stamps scrolls through her phone history, there's a never-ending view of the same 1-800 number, over and over again.

Every time she calls it, there's a message telling her to try again later. It's the same message that is frustrating newly unemployed residents across the state as they try to apply for benefits with the Texas Workforce Commission.

"I've called literally - not figuratively - more than a thousand times and haven't been able to get through at all," Stamps, of Katy, told 13 Investigates. "My job is trying to get hold of TWC now but no matter how many times I try, I can't. It's disheartening ... to feel so helpless."

Nationwide, about 10 million people applied for unemployment over the last two weeks.

In Texas, 275,597 jobless claims were filed for the week ending on March 28, according to the latest numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor. That means over the last two weeks, there have been more than 431,000 jobless claims in Texas.

"We are working night and day to meet the huge demand from unemployed workers and businesses who have been affected by the economic impact of COVID-19," Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Bryan Daniel said in a news release on Wednesday.

From the self-employed who say the system isn't set up to help them, to people applying for unemployment for the first or even second time, we've heard from dozens of residents across the state who feel helpless and scared about what bills and essentials they'll be able to afford.

FACES OF UNEMPLOYMENT: Scroll through to hear firsthand how unemployment is impacting people across the state
On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

Debbie Powell, of Livingston, said she's the sole breadwinner of her family and takes care of her 36-year-old son with disability. She's struggling to pay her utilities and has called the unemployment office hundreds of times but has yet to get through.

It's the first time she, like thousands of others across the state, is going through a situation like this.

"I received my last full paycheck last Friday," said Powell, whose hours as an office manager were cut by 40 percent. "It is getting real and scary to me because I see no end in sight. Without unemployment, I fear for what's coming for me and my son."

Bret Riggin is a full-time student and dad of three. He was driving for a rideshare company at night but hasn't been able to get through to the unemployment office either.

"Everybody is going through this for the first time and it's unsettling," said Riggin, of Fort Worth. "It doesn't help that we're not getting any communication from the Texas Workforce Commission. I think the biggest thing that we're scared of is being in the dark. Nobody likes the unanswered questions."

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said they're adding hundreds of employees to help field calls and process claims.

"We are dealing with truly an unprecedented number of people who are applying for unemployment insurance. The good news is the money is there," Abbott said. "We understand your need and your need for speed."

TWC said it is taking efforts to help the unemployed quicker. It's added more employees and hundreds of new phone lines to field a record number of calls. During previous crises, they had about 60,000 a day. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, they're receiving millions of calls a week.

On Wednesday, the workforce also launched "Larry the Chat Bot," a virtual assistant that can help people with most commonly asked questions.

"This new technology is a huge step to speed up the claims application process and get Texans the help they need faster," TWC Executive Direct Ed Serna said in a news release. "Automation not only makes the process work much faster, it empowers our tele-center staff as well. By taking the strain off our tele-center workers, it allows our highly trained staff to focus their effort on the more complex problems that require a human touch."

Still, worried Texans say they need help now.

Thomas Minor, who ran a retail store at the Houston airport, already knew what to expect when he walked into his boss's office on March 23 and was told he would be out of work indefinitely. He said he was told he could be back at work in 60 days, but now he's not so sure.

More than a week after being furloughed, he says he still hasn't been able to file for unemployment.

"I've used the website and I keep getting an error. I also have made phone calls, I emailed them and I'm still not able to get through," Minor said. "This is very frustrating because I do have a mortgage. I got a car note. I got bills. I have a family that I need to take care of."

Vicki Sontag, of Livingston, who is self-employed, said she was relieved to hear she's eligible to receive help from the unemployment office, but is struggling to get through as well.

"I've been a hairdresser for 53 years. The coronavirus has put such an impact on all of us and I'm only one of many that is out of work because of it," she said. "So many of us count on our income."

Are you experiencing issues applying to receiving unemployment benefits? 13 Investigates wants to hear from you. Fill out the form below and our team may reach out to you for more details.(On mobile? You can open our form by tapping here.)
Copyright © 2020 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.