AUSTIN, Texas — On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that qualifying Texans will now get an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits following a grant in federal funds.
We sat down with Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna to find out what Texans need to know:
Erica Proffer: “When we looked at the CARES Act money, that's $600 if you received one penny of your payment. What is it for this LWA of $300?”
Serna: “That's not the case here. Here, in order to be eligible, you had to initially qualify for $100, at least $100 or more.”
Proffer: “What about people who qualified for $100 and then went back to work part-time and their benefit fell below $100?”
Serna: “The way it was explained to us was that [a claimant] would still qualify because they initially qualified for $100.”
Proffer: “So, I'm out of work, but I picked up some side jobs. Let's say I picked up these side jobs and it reduced my benefit below $100. Since, I'm initially at $100 or more, I'll get that 300 bucks?”
Serna: "Yes, ma'am. That's what we understand. You'll get it. That's how we've written it in our code. We had to make a modification to the program. Our staff's been working feverishly to do that, too, because we want to get this money out as quickly as possible. The way we've written it is when you first qualify, if you are $100 or greater, you're eligible. Even if you got part-time jobs that brought you down to $50 or something like that a week, you're still eligible.”
Proffer: “Besides that $100 qualification, are there other people who wouldn't meet the eligibility requirements?”
Serna: “There will be people that don't qualify. Other than the $100 threshold, of course, the individuals who tell us this had nothing to do with COVID-19, such as it was oilfield related or my business was already going under. There may be a few others. We have asked and are waiting for specific answers about what else will disqualify someone. There's still some clarification that needs to be sent to states on whether some of the other funding types would qualify or not qualify.”
Proffer: “So at this point, as far as next week goes, if someone confirms it's COVID-19 related and if they are over that $100 threshold, then they are good to go?”
Serna: “Yes, ma'am. Those are the only two things at this point.”
Proffer: “Part of the DOL guidance posted online said, 'The most recent job separation doesn't need to be directly related to COVID-19. At the time of self-certification for the program, you must be unemployed or partially employed due to disruptions.' So does that mean if you lose your job but not related to COVID-19, then you can't find work because of COVID-19, does that qualify you for the $300?”
Serna: “Let's say that I lost my job because of COVID-19. The restaurant that I was working at or the department store was closed when I initially filed. I indicated I lost my job because of COVID-19. There's your initial filing. But if when I initially filed it was that I was an oilfield worker and COVID-19 didn't have anything to do with me losing my job, then I wouldn't qualify. The question that we've asked is, when people come in, if they certify again. Yes. 'I lost my job because of COVID-19.' Will that qualify them? The preliminary answer we got was, 'Well, we think so. We're going to have to study it.' [Texas Workforce Commission] is acting like it will [qualify them]. We're going to treat it like that, unless we're instructed otherwise. That's why we're adding the question to the payment request.”
Proffer: “OK, so if at this point they are unemployed because of COVID-19, that would qualify someone?”
Serna: “Yes, ma'am. All they have to do is self-certify that their unemployment is completely or partially caused by COVID-19. We're setting it up so that everybody that already did it is done. Everybody that hasn't will get one more shot to do it. When they come back, after we get approval and then we're moving on.”
Proffer: “You mentioned that it's a self-certification. Are you going to go back to that employer and verify?”
Serna: “No, ma'am. We've already verified with the employer that you were eligible for unemployment insurance. So, when you come back in to renew every two weeks, we don't go back to the employer. It's going to be that simple. It's a self-certification.
So, like the oilfield workers, if they come back in and say, 'Oh, no, I really was affected by COVID-19.' We're going to take our citizens at their word.”
Proffer: “If the money will have back-pay to the week ending Aug. 1, what if I've returned to work after the first? Can I still get back-pay?”
Serna: “Yes, ma'am. Let me talk about back-pay a little bit. The way that the executive order was written and the way that this is being implemented is that it is effective the week ending Aug. 1. You might remember there was a little bit of confusion because we couldn't pay the extra $600 that last week of July because we pay on a full week and only a full week. That last week of July wasn't a full week because it ended in a new month, Aug. 1. So, the way this was written is it starts with the week ending Aug. 1. It will include back-pay.
“We will get everybody caught up. We will go back to that July 26-Aug. 1 week, and we'll start paying the $300 every week to qualified individuals. Now, in your example, someone who is qualified the last week of July-Aug. 1, but then they went back to work. We will go back and give them back-pay, $300.”
Proffer: “How will they know to get that if they're not checking the portal?”
Serna: “One thing that we're going to do is we're going to go identify those folks who are no longer requesting payment because they have gotten a job. What we've started doing is if we've noticed that you haven't requested payment for the last couple of periods, we're now calling you.
“We go, 'You haven't requested payment in at least two periods. Did you forget or did you get a job?' And then you may say, 'Well, I got a job. I don't need to.' OK. That's good to know because we thought you forgot.
“We know who is stopped and when they stopped, so we're going to reach out to them and go, 'Did you get a job or did you forget?' And two, 'We're going to get you all caught up with your with the LWA back-pay.'”
Proffer: “When it comes to how people will receive this money, is it going to be in a combined payment like the $600 was, or will it be two separate payments to hit their account?”
Serna: “That's one thing that I asked because my concern was the emphasis by FEMA to keep these funds separate that I would end up having to issue two payments. TWC, we didn't want to do that.
We did get confirmation that it could be a single payment. Like the $600 where, let's say, you were receiving $150 plus the $600 and you had $750. Now, you would receive $150 plus the $300 for every week. It would be a single payment that you see.
"We got confirmation that we could issue it as a single payment to a single direct deposit or a single addition to the debit card that you get. Those are the only two ways that we do it, by the way, we don't write checks. It's a direct deposit or debit card."
Proffer: “But every script, I have to say employment check, because you know what you're talking about.”
Serna: “I know, and it's OK. Everybody still calls it a check, and that's OK. But it's really just a debit card or a direct deposit.”
Proffer: “I'll try to say ‘benefit payment’ as much as possible.”
Serna: “That's true. We appreciate that.”
The limits and the delays
Proffer: “This was signed back on Aug. 8. What took so long for it to come?”
Serna: “As usual, it wasn't as simple as what was conveyed in the national press where the president said, 'Here's an executive order. Here's $400.' That was the first complication. In fact, it was $300 and the state had to come up with a matching $100. We don't have the cash for the matching $100.
“Fortunately, they do allow us to use the amount of unemployment insurance that we have paid from state funds—can't count the CARES Act—that we have paid from state funds to qualifying individuals as a match. So, we had to calculate what that was because 'qualified individuals' are individuals who were initially determined to be eligible for $100 or more and who indicated that their unemployment was due to COVID-19. So, we had to make sure we had paid enough money. We know we paid a ton of money, billions of dollars, but that we paid enough money to cover our match.”
Proffer: “So, since March? Is that what you're looking at for the matching money?”
Serna: “It's everything since March to now. It's state benefits paid to people who initially qualified for $100 or more and lost their employment because they were affected by COVID-19.”
Proffer: “If you had already done that, then [the State] will still get the $300? You're not having to take it out of each person's upcoming $100 employment benefit?”
Serna: “No, not at all. No, no, no. That was just for us to say, 'Look, we have paid out this much. We paid out enough to cover what we would estimate we need. We needed to make sure that we could do that because this is a FEMA grant. If we are short, then at the end of the grant, FEMA will send us a bill and say, 'You owe us a billion dollars because you really didn't have the match' and we don't have a billion dollars.
“The second thing was the fact that it was a FEMA grant and not a Department of Labor grant, even though the two agencies were working together. So there was some confusion about what qualifies, what doesn't qualify. You know, we submit a grant application. But is it on a reimbursement basis? Do we get the money in advance? How much will we get? FEMA made very clear when the money is over, the money's over. $44 billion is gone. Or when the [FEMA Disaster Relief] fund reaches $25 billion, then the whole thing stops. We had to make sure that we asked for the right amount of money to cover qualified claimants because we didn't want to start this and then all of a sudden go, 'Well, look, the money's gone and now you don't get anything.' All of a sudden, unexpectedly.”
Proffer: “In your experience, looking at the numbers that you are seeing and talking with the people who are in other states, when is that a reality?"
Serna: “I'm not sure if we'd make it to November. It might. Keep in mind that there are two qualifiers for the availability of these funds. In the words that were used in a call that I had with my counterparts and the Department of Labor and team, when the $44 billion is gone then the $44 billion is gone. It is over. That quickly.
“The other caveat is if the FEMA balance falls below $25 billion. The way that might happen is if some tropical depression turns into a storm, turns into a hurricane and hits the coast. Those are big draws on FEMA. Then, the FEMA available balance could get to the $25 billion threshold and the program would stop then, too. We don't know if that would be the case or not.
“A big hurricane can consume several billion dollars, and in a really big one in a populated area can get in the tens of billions pretty fast.”
Proffer: “Because you guys may get the money ‘on or after Aug. 23’ doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be in people's accounts?”
Serna: “Right. So the complicating factors are, one, we have to get the funding and then we have to make sure that our computer systems are dispersing that funding in such a way that meets the requirements of the grant. So, we're estimating that from the time we get the funding, you know, once we get money in hand, it may be a week on the outside. It may be a week before people start seeing that money in their accounts. But we will get everybody caught up, going back to the week ending Aug. 1, so that last week in July, ending that Saturday, Aug. 1.”
Proffer: “I don't want to mislead people by saying ‘on or by Aug. 23.’”
Serna: “You know, I wouldn't use that Aug. 23 date.”
Proffer: “Why not wait until everything was ready to go before making an announcement?”
Serna: “I think because there was enough pressure to, you know, 'Why aren't we asking for it? Why aren't you getting it? Why aren't we asking? What are you waiting for? Other states are asking for it, so why aren't you asking for them?' I think that was some of that. I'm not I'm not criticizing, but I think that that was some of it.”
Proffer: “I can imagine because that's exactly what we said. 'See, other states are doing it.'
“Do you have anything else?”
Serna: “The one question that you asked that I don't have a clear answer for, I don't think any state does, is how long is this going to last? The $600 we knew it was going to be the last full week in July. We always knew that, but this one, it's not a certain date. It's a certain amount. It depends on how much states draw down when FEMA hits that $25 billion balance [or the $44 billion cap].
“I'd like the viewers to understand if we could definitely [give a date], we would say that. We would like that. We like that kind of stability as well as you do. But in this case, it's all based on balances and actions outside of the state’s control. It's on a national level.”
Proffer: “How much of an advance do you think you'll get?”
Serna: “We're hoping that we get enough of an advance, more than just a couple of weeks. We're going to be pinging them regularly, going, 'Got enough money?' Because we're going to come with another ask.
“So we're anticipating that we would be notified well in advance. FEMA has been very good about hosting calls with the states, filling them in on what's going on, how it's moving forward, and even as things change. It's so fluid, and they've been very good about getting changes to the information out there as well.”
Proffer: “Anything else?”
Serna: “The only thing I can probably say in closing here is to ask the viewers to please don't call the call center just to ask if you're going to qualify for this [$300]. If you're receiving benefits, we are going to be sending you information. We're going to send you as much information as we can, and we'll be sending a direct to you. We'll also have social media and [press] and website information.”
Proffer: “And you'll be sending that to them next week?”
Serna: “ We will start next week.”
Proffer: "So you requested enough money to last you to the end of the year?"
Serna: “No, ma'am. Our estimate we couldn't. Going back to what we had to match, we didn't have enough of a match to go to the end of the year. So, we're going to be requesting enough money to get us into November.”
Proffer: “What happens if it hits November and we don't have a new stimulus? The nationwide requests haven't met the $44 billion, but Texas doesn't have any more money to match. Is it safe for us to say that this would run out for Texas in November?”
Serna: “Yes, ma'am. It is safe to say we'd run out for Texas in November. That qualifying amount that I mentioned to you is also a declining amount. I apologize for getting a little bit too complicated, but the number of people that we can count is as having paid. When they exhaust their state benefits, we move them over to pandemic. Pandemic can't count [towards the match]. You can't use any of the CARES Act money. If you can envision a graph where the number of qualified people is a declining line and the number of money made, the amount of money we received from FEMA is an increasing line. Where those two cross, that's where we can't ask for any more money. So, our finance folks figured that was probably in November sometime when those two lines would cross.”
Proffer: “What do people do at that point?”
Serna: “We'll make sure that we keep our claimants informed about where we're at from an entire program perspective. So the program for start, there'll be funds. But as we start getting close to crossing those lines, we'll make sure that our claimants know far enough in advance that this is going to come to an end, kind of like we did with the $600. Even though everybody knew the $600 was coming to an end, we sent out social media and [press]. We sent out messages to all 1.7–1.8 million people warning them that the $600 is coming to an end. 'Be prepared, $600 is coming to an end in three weeks, two weeks a week, a couple of days.' We're going to do the same thing again. We're hoping that that's not the case, that there is some other resolution, but we're planning for there not to be. But we'll have messaging to go out to warn our claimants about that.
"It's not a simple thing. That's why it took us so long. We had to make sure that we weren't going to commit to something we couldn't completely fulfill. And we can fulfill it."
Proffer: “Because this is a FEMA grant, how is that different? What is the governor's role in this?”
Serna: “Actually, the governor directed us to submit the application. The application comes from us. We submitted it, and we're waiting to hear back from FEMA. I'm sure that they will, all granting entities do this, they will have questions about our grant submission. We'll answer those questions. Then, as quickly as we can, we'll be pressing them to give us an answer and the funds so we can get them to our claimants.
“So the process with us interacting with the governor's office was from the perspective of we had to make sure the governor was good with us committing to this grant because there could be the potential that if the state would be wrong, then the state would have an obligation. We had to make sure we briefed them that our numbers were accurate, and we won't have to write a check obligation at the end of this grant.”
Proffer: “Because this is grant money, you have to have two different pots of money. Right? So when it comes to the administrative costs, like the call centers in particular, how will that work if I call in?”
Serna: “We're not separating any of that. If you called in with a question we'll answer the question. I know FEMA would like for a call center person to say, 'Well, I spent 10 minutes answering this call. So now 10 minutes' worth of my salary needs to go to this grant. That's just part of our general overhead. We have separate funds to support our unemployment insurance activity. All of the monies that we get from this grant are going to go to our claimants”
Proffer: “So, you didn't have to submit a cost allocation?”
Serna: “We did have to submit a cost allocation, but we focused on what it was going to take us to set up the program, because, again, going back to the complexity of it, because it's FEMA dollars and not money appropriated by Congress through the Department of Labor, we couldn't receive the money and put it in our unemployment insurance account. We have to have a separate account. We have to account for it separately and manage it separately, and then merge it to make a single payment. So, that's the cost. That's where we believe the heavy cost is. It's in the programming and the finance time to do that kind of separate accounting. Everything else is just we've been answering questions on the [LWA] before the grant. So it's minuscule compared to everything else that we're doing.”
Proffer: "What sort of extra training are you going to provide to call center employees?"
Serna: “We've already started putting together some Q&A that we're sending out to all eight call centers, the staff at our four call centers and the four contract call centers. It's a really very clear cut. The claimant doesn't need to do anything. If you already certified when you first filed that you are unemployed because of COVID-19, you're done. It's a one-time certification. If you haven't [certified], the next time you log in to request your payment, there'll be a new question there. You'll answer 'yes' or 'no' to that question. Then, you've certified. That's it. So, it's not a complicated program. Then, the money will get added to your two weeks of benefit. It's just like the $600 did before. The $300 a week will get added, but we pay every two weeks.
“Mostly, what we anticipate are, 'When's the money going to run out?' And our answer there, unfortunately, is 'we don't know.' We know what we've asked for, but based on what all other states and territories are doing, FEMA could go through that $44 billion a lot sooner.”
Proffer: “I can imagine someone sitting at home I want to call and make sure they have it. How are the call centers right now handling all of this volume? Plus, now they're trying to make these outbound calls?”
Serna: “We started doing outbound calls some time ago. We have increased the number of contractors that we have on board. So we're taking our more qualified staff, some from contract, some from our own call centers. They're doing the outbound calls. We have staff that are not in the call centers that are working these assignments. They are doing outbound calls, not our volunteers, but our actual tenured staff. We have improved our response time in the call centers, but there's still a lot of people that can't get through because of the volume, because of the redials, because of just a daily or hourly volume.
“I want to appeal to your viewers to say we're going to publish as much information as we can. If you are receiving money from us because of a claim, we have your contact information and we're going to be sending you information about these funds: when they're going to become available, what you need to do or not do and whether you're going to be eligible or not and why not.
“We're going to reach out to you electronically. Most people have given us their email address to avoid you clogging the system from people that have other questions or issues about their claims.”
Proffer: “When should folks expect to hear from you?”
Serna: “Probably beginning next week, if not sooner. We've already started crafting messages. We don't start sending messages out until we hear from FEMA that, yes, you're approved and here comes your money. It's the old 'don't want to count your chickens before they're hatched' kind of thing. We feel very confident, very, very confident, that we will be approved. It's just me being conservative.
“But probably early next week, we'll start sending messages out to these specific individuals that we know that are already receiving benefits from us, to individuals that just now are losing their job because of COVID-19. We will have help from you all by putting messages out, social media posts, information on our website. We've already planned a spot to put this on our website. It's kind of a noticeable spot. So we'll try to get as much as possible to avoid people trying to call us because if you're just calling us to say, 'Will I get it?' You may be taking the spot of someone who's trying to call it to say, 'I need help, I need money. I lost my job two weeks ago, three weeks ago.'”
Proffer: “Last time you and I chatted, you were moving some folks that were working in the call centers back to their regular departments, investigations, that kind of thing. Are you having to move them back now because you're getting this on top of everything else that you have going on?”
Serna: “No, ma'am, because we went to some of our contract call centers and said, 'We need you to increase the number of people you have. Let's get them trained up,' not knowing that there would be an LWA program, but being concerned that because of the spike in COVID-19 that we were going to start seeing new people coming into the system. We were a little proactive at that.
"But I will be the first to tell you even adding those resources, we have staff answering phones, contract workers and we still have some volunteers. We have a significant integrated voice response system. We have the chat bot. There are still more people that are calling in. Until this pandemic is over, we are always going to have more people that are calling than can get in.
“I'm not going to say, 'Hey, look, just keep trying.' People get frustrated. So what we're doing is we're trying to figure out other avenues to have you call us. We have contemplated – I'm almost hesitant to say this – but we have contemplated a couple of separate email addresses that say if you need help with an initial claim, send an email here and within 72 hours someone will contact you. Reason I'm hesitant to say that is the minute we do that, everything else will get flooded. People are just desperate. We understand that. They'll grab any email address they can and then the original purpose will get washed out. So, we are going to continue to figure out ways to, one, make ourselves available and accessible and then available through other mechanisms to address not only this, but just the spikes. We're concerned about the impact of COVID in other businesses and schools, things like that. Will there be a trickle effect to unemployment because of those things?”
Proffer: “How many people have you added to the call centers?”
Serna: “I want to say that we've added, in at least two call centers, we've added an additional 600. We probably are getting close to 2,800 total taking calls and making calls across all of the centers. We have an operation that's not a call center. These are the people that are doing some of the outbound calls for people that email us or leave us information on Larry, the chatbot. So we have more than just the call centers making calls.”
Proffer: “For the accountability part of this grant, do you send that directly to FEMA or to the governor's office? How does that work?”
Serna: “We send it directly to FEMA. We'll keep the governor's office apprised and we'll keep the Department of Labor apprised because FEMA and the Department of Labor are working together. FEMA is the grant issuer. So, we have to get all of our accounting to FEMA. We're familiar with dealing with FEMA because of the presence on the Texas coast with floods and fires and everything else. We're familiar with dealing with them.”
Proffer: “What was the reason why the state wouldn't use general funds, money or anything else to contribute that extra $100 if some states are going to be giving $400. Texas is giving $300. Why not do the $400?”
Serna: “This is going to be the only time you can hear me say this to you, but I don't have an answer for that. That's above my pay grade. I'm not trying to dodge it. By pay grade, I mean, not it's not our commission. The money that we're responsible for, that we can use – if we had the cash, so to speak, would certainly have dumped it in. The decision on whether to allocate other funding or not allocate other funding was all made outside of the agency. So, I don't have any insight into what that logic was.”
Proffer: “Is that the governor's office who made that decision?”
Serna: “I think it was probably the governor's office and in legislative leadership. I'm sure that they worked with legislative leadership on funding and obligations and everything else. Considering where the state is at from a tax perspective and everything else, there are probably a whole bunch of considerations. Those are not conversations that I was engaged in.”
The Governor's Office did not respond to our inquiries, but issued this press release on Aug. 21:
Gov. Greg Abbott today issued a statement after the federal government approved nearly $1.4 billion in initial funds made available through President Trump’s Lost Wage Assistance Executive Order. This funding will provide an additional $300 per week in benefits for qualifying Texans receiving unemployment benefits. The Texas Workforce Commission applied for these funds earlier this week.
"I thank the Trump administration for swiftly granting these funds to help Texans who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Governor Abbott. "These funds will help Texans in need support their families as we work to revitalize the economy and get Texans back to work."
KVUE has asked how long it will be before people will see it in their unemployment benefit payments.
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