James Ray has gone a full month without work.
The barber shop where he works in Lewisville has been closed since mid-March because of fears about the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, the father of two has tried to get unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission. But on top of the massive wait times on the agency’s hotline and an inability to access its website to fill out an application, Ray has been slowed down because he is self-employed.
Unlike regular employees, Ray pays rent for a space at the shop where he serves his clients. This irregular employment status would usually make him ineligible for unemployment. But the federal coronavirus relief legislation — the CARES Act — approved last month by Congress allowed self-employed workers, contractors and part-time workers to temporarily receive unemployment relief.
Texas’ unemployment system, however, was not set up to deal with the changes and regularly tells many of these workers they do not qualify. Though the Texas Workforce Commission follows up with workers to tell them their applications will be processed, the issue has caused additional confusion and delays.
“I don’t think this system is equipped to handle 1099 workers,” Ray said, referring to the tax form used by the Internal Revenue Service to track the income of self-employed workers and contractors.
“It’s kind of crucial,” he said. “I really need that.”
Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission, said the state’s unemployment system is having to undergo multiple changes to address the pandemic. Its staff is having to adjust its system to handle benefit payments for regular unemployment claims as well as the addition of self-employed, contract and gig workers.
Such workers will be issued an automatic denial by the system, but that doesn’t mean they will not receive any benefits. The commission will convert denied claims for regular unemployment to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program set up by the federal legislation. Staff will then contact those workers with information about their eligibility and instructions on how to receive their benefits.
“The initial denial for unemployment insurance may cause confusion but does not affect the PUA eligibility,” the commission said in a press release.
Workers who have already applied don’t need to file again. The commission will contact them.
Self-employed and contract workers filing new applications should select “reduced hours” when asked the reason for job separation and select COVID-19 under the “disaster impact section.”
But many workers have had problems even applying for unemployment. In just over a month, the commission has received more than two years’ worth of applications.
Its phone lines have been clogged with callers, and workers have been unable to log on to the application system on the agency’s website. Its hotline is averaging 2 million calls a day, an average of 61 calls per second.
Wes Riojas, a wedding videographer from Waxahachie, has struggled to access the application system because his identity is tied to an old account from more than 10 years ago, he said.
The website told him he already had an account and asked him to verify his Social Security number. But when he did that the site told him to create a new password. which then went back to saying he already had an account.
Stuck in a loop, Riojas said his only option was to call the agency’s hotline, which he has been unable to reach despite calling hundreds of times a day. Last Friday, he called 450 times on three separate phones.
“In terms of the process, I’m at square one again,” he said.
Riojas, who is self-employed, has still not been able to file his application and has started taking day labor jobs to make some money.
Wes Riojas is an independent contractor who works as a wedding videographer. Because he’s self-employed, Riojas doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits so he hopes the federal CARES Act will be able to rescue him from his financial plight. (Steve Hamm / Special Contributor)
Mark Stone, whose wife, Barbara Stone, runs a photo booth rental business in Carrollton, said she also had problems accessing the application because of an old account. It took her a week of calls just to get a PIN to reset her account.
Once she reset it, the commission’s website kept crashing. Mark Stone said he had to stay up until 3 a.m., when the website’s traffic died down, to fill out her application.
Even after it was filed, he said, he worried that he had answered incorrectly on questions that don’t normally apply to self-employed workers, which could cost his wife her unemployment benefits.
“It’s just confusing,” he said. “And frustrating that if you have a question you won’t get through to anyone to ask.”
Though he is still working in internet marketing, having his wife’s income drop to zero has tightened the family’s budget. They have cut expenses to make sure they can take care of each other and their 26-year-old daughter, who is autistic and lives at home.
So far he’s been able to hold on to his health insurance, but he fears what the next round of budget cuts may bring.
“That’s the next thing that’s going to have to go if I can’t get any relief,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
In recent weeks, the workforce commission has tried to increase its capacity to handle the flood of unemployment requests — more than 1.5 million in the past month. It has spent $4 million to hire 175 new employees to process calls and has reassigned 350 employees from other divisions to also handle calls. It has also doubled the amount of unemployment call centers from four to eight.
Still, applicants remain confused about when they’ll receive their benefits from the commission.
Mark Stone said the commission’s website said his wife could request payment on Sunday, but when she logged on to complete the process, the date had changed to Monday. The commission’s Facebook page is filled with people who also say their date to request payment keeps changing.
Gamez, the agency spokesman, said the payment of unemployment benefits varies but on average takes 21 days from the time a person becomes eligible. State officials like Gov. Greg Abbott have called for patience and assured Texans that despite the wait, payments will be made retroactively.
Riojas, 41, is suffering in waiting. The sole breadwinner for his wife and four children, he lost $7,000 in revenue from canceled weddings in March. He signed up for federal food stamps last week. Without assistance from his church, Riojas said he would not have been able to pay his rent last month.
He said he appreciates the effort the state is making but wishes more would be done.
“I know the intent is there and they’re doing everything they can around the clock, but if it was a million donors calling, it would be a Jerry Lewis telethon,” he said. “You wouldn’t get a busy signal. There’s gotta be a way to do it where the phone just rings and you answer. Where’s that open line?”
On Wednesday, Barbara Stone got an automated rejection from the state.
“We can’t find out why,” Mark Stone said. “[The] software is not up to speed to where it needs to be. It can’t separate people like us just yet. Our only recourse is to call them.”
When told that the automated rejection, which had nearly brought his wife to tears, did not necessarily mean they were ineligible for unemployment, Mark Stone said the system caused unnecessary anxiety and confusion.
“That’s crazy to me that they knew this and they didn’t tell us on the front page when we’re applying,” he said. “That’s nuts. I understand it. It makes perfect sense, but it’s nuts they couldn’t just tell us.”