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Texas’ unemployment system is confusing and frustrating. Here’s how to navigate it.

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Posted at 3:59 PM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-04 16:59:26-05

"Texas’ unemployment system is confusing and frustrating. Here’s how to navigate it." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

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If you’re confused about how the Texas Workforce Commission is handling your unemployment claim, you aren’t alone.

More than 3.8 million Texans have applied for unemployment benefits since March, and we’ve heard from thousands who have struggled with their unemployment claims ever since. They have endured months of problems getting in touch with the TWC, been kicked off of additional weekly benefits and tried to maneuver through a confusing appeals process.

Meanwhile, two main programs authorized by the federal CARES Act that significantly expand assistance are set to expire at the end of December. If Congress doesn’t act soon, many Texans will lose at least some of their benefits.

As people wait to learn more about the fate of their pandemic benefits, many are still struggling to navigate the TWC’s already-complicated unemployment system, made harder to understand by the changing rules and programs that came with COVID-19.

We’ve found that easily accessible, up-to-date information about unemployment benefits can be hard to find in one place. 

In this guide, you’ll find answers to the following questions:

Yo hablo español. ¿Dónde puedo encontrar información?

El sitio web de la TWC tiene una opción de español para cada categoría de desempleo en Texas.

Otros sitios web útiles:

Do I qualify for unemployment benefits?

Traditional unemployment benefits in Texas are typically available to people who have been laid off from their jobs or who have lost hours or wages for reasons that aren’t tied to employee misconduct. They are funded through employer taxes and meant to provide a temporary, partial income replacement for people who meet certain qualifications.

Melissa Jacobs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, says generally, “people who are separated from work through no fault of their own” qualify for some type of assistance.

State unemployment systems across the country have changed, however, during the coronavirus pandemic. The CARES Act, a federal law passed in March, has temporarily made many more workers who’ve been affected by COVID-19 eligible for unemployment assistance than would be otherwise under Texas law. Those workers include independent contractors, gig workers, people who have already used up their unemployment benefits and people who didn’t earn enough in the past to qualify for regular unemployment. TRLA offers a detailed breakdown of who can access unemployment benefits during the pandemic here.

If Congress doesn’t take action soon, unemployment programs authorized by the CARES Act will expire after Dec. 26, 2020.

Although the legislation is set to expire soon, it may still be worth filing a claim for pandemic-specific assistance if you lost work earlier during the pandemic, as you may be eligible for backdated payments. Read more about that here.

What kind of benefits am I eligible for? 

Regular unemployment benefits:

This traditional unemployment program provides assistance for up to 26 weeks per year. To be eligible for regular benefits, you must:

  • Have made enough money during what’s called a base period. Your base period is a window of time before you lose employment or hours.
  • Be either unemployed or working reduced hours through no fault of your own. This includes layoffs, reductions in hours or wages not related to misconduct, being fired for reasons other than misconduct or quitting with good cause related to work, such as unsafe working conditions. According to the TWC, most people who quit do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits.
  • Meet other ongoing eligibility requirements, including being able to perform full-time work, participating in work search activities and having legal residence in the United States.

Once you exhaust your claim, you may be eligible for one or more of the federal pandemic assistance programs, as well as a state extension program. The TWC should automatically consider you for these programs and enroll you if you qualify. Read more about extensions here.

NOTE: You will be screened for regular unemployment before you are screened for pandemic-related benefits. You may get a denial letter for traditional benefits but still qualify for other assistance programs.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA):

If you apply for unemployment and the workforce commission finds that you do not qualify for regular benefits, the agency should automatically consider you for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and enroll you if you are found eligible. You should not need to file a separate claim.

PUA lasts up to 39 weeks. According to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, you should qualify if:

  • You lost work because of a layoff or permanent, indefinite or temporary business closure caused by COVID-19.
  • You are self-employed and your business has closed permanently, indefinitely or temporarily, or you are self-employed and cannot find work because of COVID-19 (for example, a personal trainer who can’t see clients in person, or a rideshare driver and fewer people are requesting your services).
  • You had your work hours reduced because of COVID-19.
  • You are unable to work (whether you were employed by someone else or self-employed) because you are caring for a child whose school or child care facility closed because of COVID-19.
  • You are fired or leave work to comply with a mandatory order issued under a disaster declaration.
  • You are unable to work because of a government-ordered quarantine or a doctor advised you to self-quarantine over COVID-19 concerns.
  • You are unable to work because you or someone else in your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or you are caring for a family member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • You are unable to work because you have COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking a diagnosis.

This program expires after Dec. 26, 2020.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC):

Texas currently provides up to 13 additional weeks of benefits to people who have exhausted their regular state benefits. This is a new program under the CARES Act. If you were already receiving unemployment assistance and used up your 26 weeks of benefits before the coronavirus pandemic, you may be eligible for more assistance under this program.

According to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, you should qualify for PEUC if:

  • Your original unemployment claim was dated on or after July 8, 2018.
  • You exhausted all regular unemployment benefits you were entitled to.
  • You are not eligible for benefits in any other state or territory.
  • You will run out of your current benefits at any point before Dec. 20, 2020.
  • You are not receiving compensation under the unemployment laws of Canada.
  • You are able to work and available for work.

You do not need to reapply or file a new unemployment claim to receive this benefit if you ran out of benefits on or after July 1, 2019. Instead, you can resume requesting payments.

This program expires after Dec. 26, 2020.

There are so many terms and acronyms. What do they all mean?

Applying for unemployment aid in Texas can be like learning to read another language.

Are you on a TUC? Is it EB or HUP? Have you logged onto UBS and checked your correspondence inbox or called the Tele-Serv to find out? We have compiled a glossary of acronyms and terms to help you out, which can be found here.

A phone with a speech bubble over it.

Illustrations by Emily Albracht

I can’t get through to the TWC. How do I get in touch?

Use the internet when possible. Melissa Jacobs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, recommends filing your claim online and getting in the habit of checking your account regularly to stay on top of notices from the TWC. The TWC offers instructions on how to:

Call. If you don’t have access to the internet or need to talk to someone, you can try calling 800-939-6631, the TWC’s main line for unemployment claims. But be prepared to wait anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Jacobs recommends calling your local workforce office first and asking to be put into the hold queue for unemployment benefits if the call taker can’t help you. Some Texans, like Ozona resident Sean Sanchez, 52, have had luck in recent months calling TWC’s main line first thing in the morning. “Start calling at 7 a.m. on the dot,” Sanchez advised.

Request a call through the live chat function on the TWC website. At the bottom of the homepage, a “virtual assistant” can help answer common questions about TWC services. Check back in if you don’t receive a call within a couple of days. Some people say they never heard back. NOTE: If you request a call, the TWC may try to get in touch with you from a number you don’t recognize or that appears on your phone as “unknown.” The agency also recommends making sure your voicemail inbox is not full.

Search for specialized emails and phone numbers online. Some Texans said they’ve successfully connected with the TWC through emailing or calling specific employees at the agency. Some have found contacts in Facebook groups and on Reddit.

Email the unemployment ombudsman. If you have an issue with your claim that you haven’t been able to resolve, the TWC recommends sending an email to the agency’s unemployment insurance ombudsman. They say you should not attach documentation unless it is requested, but that you should send your name and phone number. Email: ui.ombudsmen@twc.state.tx.us.

I did not apply for benefits until a week or more after I lost my job.  Do I still qualify?

Possibly. You are eligible to receive unemployment benefits starting from the time you lost your job, but if you aren’t able to immediately reach the TWC, you can request “backdated benefits” to ensure you receive benefits beginning with the week you lost your job.

  • If you are given the option through Tele-Serv or through your online account to request benefit payments for backdated weeks, you must request them at that time, the TWC says.
  • If you are not given the option to request backdated benefits, you’ll need to call the TWC, request a callback or email the agency requesting backdated payments starting with the date you lost your job. Email: ui.ombudsmen@twc.state.tx.us.
  • Provide the exact date you lost your job. Texans who have had issues with this part of the process say that the TWC will look for “any T that is not crossed, so pay close attention to what you submit and have personal documentation to back it all up if they ask for it later,” said Angeline Stevens, who teaches welding in Dallas and has endured the unemployment process.
  • Alia Kirschner, who helps moderate a Facebook group called Texas Unemployment Updates, wrote a template email for any of the group’s 24,000 members who are receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to use when requesting backdated pay. You can request to join the group and see more advice here.

What do I need to know about work search requirements?

As of Nov. 1, the TWC has reinstated work search requirements. This means most people must take steps to return to work while receiving unemployment benefits.

Your local workforce area gets to determine the number of searches required where you live based on local COVID-19 numbers and hospitalizations. You can check how many searches are required in your county here.

What counts as a work search?

It depends what kind of unemployment claim you are on. Read more about how to tell here.

If you are on regular unemployment, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC):

  • Your search activities can include registering on an online job board — such as workintexas.com — a job interview, attending a virtual networking event or other activities.
  • The TWC will not ask you for documentation of your work search activities every time you request payment. Instead, you will check a box that confirms you performed a search. Someone may, however, randomly ask you to prove your work search activities. Keeping a log of your searches for your own records is a good idea. Here is a log template from the TWC.

If you are on Extended Benefits (EB):

  • You are required to look for work on multiple days per week using different methods and completing different activities.
  • You must document your work search activities using the TWC’s EB Search Log and submit it within seven days of each payment request you make. The workforce commission should send a blank EB Search Log to your correspondence inbox — the online mail portal tied to your TWC account — or to your physical mailbox. You can submit the documentation online or by mail or fax using the address or fax number listed on the form.

How do I do a work search if I’m self-employed?

If you intend to reopen your business, you do not need to search for new employment. Instead, you should take steps to reopen and report to the TWC how many hours per week you’ve spent trying to rebuild your business. The TWC has not specified a minimum number of required hours.

Steps to reopen that are accepted by the TWC include activities like contacting past clients, submitting a bid on a contract or posting on social media about your reopening plans. Read more about this on TWC’s website.

If you do not plan to reopen your business, you must perform work searches as outlined here.

Is anyone exempt from work searches?

You may be exempt from work searches if you meet any of the following criteria. You must also have your exemption approved by the Unemployment Insurance Division of the TWC.

  • You are on a temporary layoff or furlough with a definite return-to-work date.
  • You are an active member in good standing of a union with a nondiscriminatory hiring hall.
  • You are in a TWC-approved training program that includes work search exemption.
  • You are in Trade Act training.
  • You are in a Shared-Work program.

You are not exempt from work searches if you contract COVID-19 or are awaiting a diagnosis. “Work search can be done in most cases safely from home,” TWC spokesperson James Bernsen said.

A crystal ball with a hospital red cross.

Illustrations by Emily Albracht

How do I know what kind of unemployment aid I’m receiving?

You can log on to your online account with the TWC and visit your claim and payment status page. Here, under the claim information section, you will see your claim type listed as: Regular Unemployment Benefits, Disaster Unemployment Benefits (for now, this is the same as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance), or Temporary Unemployment Benefits (extensions).

If you are on an extension, it can be difficult to know which program you are enrolled in. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits are two active extension programs that are both referred to as Temporary Unemployment Benefits on your claim and payment status page.

To find out which extension you are on, look through the documentation in your correspondence inbox online or mailed to you by TWC. You should have paperwork that states which extension program you are on.

Another way to tell: Log on to your payment status page and click “select another claim to view” directly above the Claim Information header. If you see two claims listed as Temporary Unemployment Benefits, you are likely on EB. That’s because most people must exhaust PEUC before they are put onto an EB claim. You can read more about the differences between the two extensions here.

What can I do if my unemployment claim is denied? 

If you disagree with a decision the TWC has made about your unemployment claim, you can file an appeal.

  • Attorneys with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid recommend to their clients that they continue to request benefits while appealing a denial. That way, if they win, they get payments for the weeks they requested during that time.

How do I file an appeal?

According to the TWC, you must appeal in writing within 14 calendar days of when the agency sent your determination letter. You can send your appeal by mail, by fax or online, or submit it in person at your local workforce commission office. The letter should include the reason for your appeal. If you submit online, it’s a good idea to print out or take a screenshot of the confirmation page as proof you sent it.

The TWC says on its website that you should include the following in your appeal letter:

  • Your name, address and Social Security number.
  • The date the TWC mailed you the decision you want to appeal.
  • A copy of the determination notice, if possible.
  • Any dates you will not be available for a hearing.

Attorneys with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid also encourage their clients to include:

  • Your request for translators, if needed, and the language you require.
  • Your request for special services, if needed, such as an interpreter for hearing loss.
  • (If you need to have your appeal hearing in a language other than English, or if one of your witnesses needs an interpreter, you should say so in the appeal and state which language you or your witness speaks.)

Important: If you miss the appeal deadline, your appeal letter must explain in detail why you submitted late.

What happens during the appeals hearing?

Upon receiving the appeal, the agency sends a notice of a telephone hearing. That lists your hearing officer — who amounts to the judge in the case. Legal representation is optional. You can have someone represent you, but the TWC does not provide a lawyer. You also may call witnesses, and your most recent employer may also appeal and participate in the hearing. The hearing officer has your documents in front of them and asks a series of questions, and you are provided an opportunity to lay out your case. Ahead of your hearing, the TWC recommends gathering the following materials to have on hand:

  • Letters and memos.
  • Timecards.
  • Doctors’ statements.
  • Photos
  • Maps, charts and diagrams.
  • Performance record.

Angeline Stevens, the welding teacher in Dallas, appealed a TWC finding. She recommends having on hand a history of your pay stubs, termination letters and/or any written correspondence you’ve had with your previous employer.

Any of the relevant documents you want to present during the hearing must be provided to the hearing officer listed on your appeal hearing notice. The agency recommends sending relevant documents as far in advance as possible. You should not include documents already included in the hearing information packet.

If I disagree with the decision TWC makes about my appeal, do I have any other options?

Yes. You can read more about next steps here.

I’ve been told I owe money to the state. What do I do?

A Texas Workforce Commission notice that the agency has determined someone was overpaid benefits.

Overpayments happen when the workforce commission pays you unemployment benefits that you were not actually entitled to.

In some circumstances, you may be overpaid if you under-report your earnings or fail to include income like severance or time-off payouts. In others, you may be overpaid if you gave incorrect information about your job loss that results in your eligibility for a certain program being overturned. Read more about reasons for overpayment here.

If you disagree that you were overpaid, as many Texans have, you can submit an appeal with the TWC.

I’ve started working again but not full time. Can I continue getting unemployment benefits? 

If you are working fewer hours than you were prior to losing employment and applying for benefits, you may still qualify for partial unemployment. Attorneys with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid tell clients in this situation to continue requesting payments like normal, including their income and hours worked.

A 2020 calendar with Xs on it.

Illustrations by Emily Albracht

I returned to work after filing for benefits, but I’m out of work again. What do I do?

According to the workforce commission, if three weeks or less have passed since you last requested payment, you should go ahead and request payment again as normal. You should report any hours you worked or income you received during the time period for which you request unemployment benefits.

If it has been more than three weeks since you last requested payment, you should reapply for benefits. To help the TWC activate your claim quickly, the agency says, select layoff as the reason you lost your job. Choose layoff even if you were furloughed or the business where you were most recently working closed.

What happens when I run out of my benefits?

You may not qualify for more benefits. However, there are a few places to check.

If you have exhausted your regular unemployment claim, the TWC should automatically consider you for an extension — you don’t need to file an additional claim. (However, if you believe you qualify for an extension and you are not enrolled within three to four days of exhausting your claim, you can contact the workforce commission.) There are two temporary extension programs currently active in Texas that most people* on regular unemployment qualify for: Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC, and Extended Benefits, or EB.

*If you are eligible for unemployment in another state because you also earned wages there, you may have to exhaust your regular benefits in that state before qualifying for EB in Texas.

If you have exhausted your Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits and have not recently been on regular unemployment, you don’t qualify for any kind of extension.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)

Under the CARES Act, Texas provides up to 13 additional weeks of federally funded PEUC benefits to people who exhaust their regular state benefits. This program expires after Dec. 26, 2020.

Extended Benefits (EB)

EB is a state program that was triggered by Texas’ high unemployment rate in June. It also extends your benefits for up to 13 additional weeks. Before being considered for EB, you must first exhaust the standard 26 weeks of regular unemployment, plus the additional 13-week extension under PEUC.

While on an extension, will I get the same amount of money each week as I did while on regular benefits?

Yes. The extension extends the amount of time you can receive the benefit. It does not affect the amount you receive.

How do I know if I’m on an extension?

If you’re currently on an extension, your online account will indicate that you claim “Temporary Unemployment Benefits.” To check, visit your claim and payment status page and look directly beneath the Claim Information header. If your claim type is still listed as “Regular Unemployment Benefits,” click the link directly above the Claim Information header that says “Select another claim to view.” This should bring up any other claims you have, including any possible extensions.

If you don’t have access to the internet, check the documentation sent to you in the mail by the TWC.

What happens at the end of December?

Unless Congress takes action to extend the pandemic unemployment benefits in the CARES Act, two programs will expire after Dec. 26: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC.

If you are receiving benefits through either of these programs, you will stop receiving them at the end of December. You may then become eligible for other benefits.

If you are on regular unemployment, you will continue receiving your benefits until you exhaust your claim or find other work.

If you are on Extended Benefits (EB), you will continue receiving your benefits until you exhaust your claim or find other work, or until the unemployment rate in Texas improves and brings the EB program to an end.

If you are appealing a decision from the TWC related to your PUA or PEUC claim and you have an appeals hearing after Dec. 26, the agency says if you win, you will be paid for any weeks for which you are found eligible.

I feel like I’ve tried everything and I still can’t get my claim sorted out. What can I do?

If all else fails: Ask again, but louder.

Houston resident Kimberly Lantz suggests calling your local representative’s office. After she was laid off from her job as a hotel sales manager in March, she filed for unemployment right away, but the TWC denied her claim for regular benefits because of an issue with her recent work history.

For the next seven months, she would try in bursts to get in touch with the workforce commission to find out whether she qualified for pandemic assistance. But she could never get through. It wasn’t until she called state Rep. Ed Thompson’s office in October to discuss her situation that she got an answer from the TWC. Within a week, $20,000 of backpay was deposited into her account.

What other resources can help me through this process?

Here are other places Texans have gone to get their questions answered throughout the process of applying for assistance during the pandemic:

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/12/04/texas-unemployment-how-to-apply/.