AUSTIN (Nexstar) – More Texans are finding themselves out of work as stay home orders continue due to the coronavirus. The Texas Workforce Commission, which handles unemployment claims, has been overwhelmed by the number of filings.
The commission has already handled more than double the number of claims it had in all of 2019. People trying to call the TWC report waiting for hours before getting through.
The commission added hundreds of workers to help handle claims. Governor Greg Abbott told reporters that the state reassigned legislative staffers to help with the workload.
“Everyone, regardless of when they apply, will still get all of their benefits,” Abbott said during an interview with KXAN. “The benefits they get will be even more than before because of the additional money provided by Congress,” Abbott added.
But even after people receive approval for unemployment, there can be another hurdle. To receive assistance, applicants have to file a payment request. Some people say they’re having to call the TWC to make that request, facing long waits before receiving payment.
An agency spokesperson told us the payment request process should be able to be completed online, without calling. But that’s not the case for some Texans.
Megan Donaldson said she got a notice from the TWC that her unemployment application was approved, but she noticed the commission entered a previous employer’s information into her current claim, which means she had to file an appeal to have that undone.
She’s followed the TWC’s suggested call schedule, which asked that applicants call on days and times according to their area code. But, she hasn’t been able to get through on the phone.
“I’m literally sitting in this apartment all day hitting redial, refresh. From 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock every day,” Donaldson said, “It’s pretty much all day, every day just hang up, call again, hang up call again.”
“We are helping some Texans, I’m sorry it’s taking longer—we want to help them and it’s all hands-on deck. We are all working extended hours, we are working through the weekend, we are all working to meet the demand and help Texans in need,” TWC spokesman Cisco Gamez said.
“They will get help. If they qualify for unemployment insurance, they will get benefits. With some people, it’s just taking longer, and we are working on that now,” Gamez said.
Many Texans will soon receive stimulus payments from the federal government. The payments can be up to $1200 for individuals, $2400 for married couples, and $500 for each qualifying dependent child.
Congress approved the payments in late March. Back then, President Donald Trump and many lawmakers expected people to begin going back to work by Easter. Now, the coronavirus shutdowns are scheduled to extend into May. The current payments may not be enough for people currently out of work.
“We are negotiating a phase four bill, if you will, that will deal with potentially more direct checks,” said Congressman Michael McCaul. He said that more federal dollars to help businesses and individuals could be approved later this month.
But the Texas Republican also emphasized the benefits the current stimulus package. McCaul pointed to funds to help preserve oil and gas industry jobs, as well as billions in funding for hospitals.
“It will get better eventually,” McCaul said. “But this month, I believe, is the most critical month in this whole pandemic crisis.”
Democrats sue the state over mail-in voting access
The Texas Democratic Party is suing the state to expand who can vote by mail. Party leaders say mail-in voting is a way to protect Texans from potential health risks if an election happened during a health emergency, similar to what the state faces now with COVID-19.
Texas Democrats point to what happened last week in Wisconsin, where the state held its election despite the health risks to people voting in person.
“Whatever your political preferences are, you can’t have been happy with a situation where people were out standing in line, touching voting equipment exposed to one another in this time of pandemic, just to secure the right to vote,” said Chad Dunn, General Counsel for the Texas Democratic Party.
Texas currently restricts who is eligible to vote by mail in Texas. To qualify for a mail-in ballot, a voter must be age 65 or older or be disabled. People who will be away from their home county for early voting and election day can also get a mail-in ballot. The state also allows eligible voters who are confined in jail to vote by mail.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to give any eligible voter the option to vote by mail if they believe they need to do so to protect themselves or others from the coronavirus.
Governor Greg Abbott has said he’s not in favor of efforts to expand vote by mail eligibility. “I think that people have a legal right to vote in person, and we need to try to conduct elections consistent with that,” Abbott said when asked about the lawsuit.
The Governor previously issued an executive order to move elections scheduled for May to July. He called that a “superior strategy” to making more Texans eligible to vote by mail. Abbott said that he hopes that by July conditions will improve enough to allow people to safely vote in person.
“There’s no question there are people who will still need and have available to them in-person voting,” Dunn said. He emphasized that the lawsuit is about giving more Texans the option to vote by mail. Dunn believes that option is necessary amid the uncertainty brought by the pandemic.
“It’s a lot like the ventilator situation. We’ve got to flatten the curve,” Dunn said. “In-person voting is going to need to see the demand for it lowered.”
Dunn said that until a treatment or a vaccine is available, it’s possible for a new outbreak to require health emergency restrictions similar to what Texas is going through now. He said the state needs to prepare now to keep elections from being disrupted later this year.
“Voting in November is going to happen one way or the other. We can have Wisconsin, or we can have a reasonable process where everybody gets a say,” Dunn said. “The only way to do that is vote by mail.”
Mother’s death raises questions about COVID-19 testing
Michelle Lee Carter’s family says she died from COVID-19 after seven days in the ICU at a Round Rock hospital.
“She drove herself to the emergency room, she told me [doctors] insist I go and I can’t breathe,” said Kristen Campbell, Carter’s daughter.
Campbell said Baylor Scott and White Medical Center Round Rock immediately put her mom into an isolated room in the emergency room, and then quickly tested her for COVID-19. The next day the results came back positive.
“The most difficult part was not being able to see her, hold her hand, encourage her fight, or get much more than one quick phone call with the doctor a day,” said Carter’s other daughter Lauren Mayes.
Carter had told her daughters the week prior doctors she saw through telemedicine appointments thought she just had the flu. That means about a week went by when Carter had the coronavirus, but nobody knew.
And then there are people on the other end of the spectrum who get a mild case of COVID-19 or show no symptoms and never get tested, and then recover.
“There are certainly a lot of positive cases that are not officially confirmed,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
On Wednesday, he admitted in a one-on-one interview with KXAN, the numbers being put out daily by the state and county are not telling the full story.
“As we get more tests, we’re going to be checking more and more people so we would expect the positive number to go up,” said Adler.
A number that’s also proving to be impossible to get in Central Texas: the number of people being admitted to local hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms, not just patients in hospitals who test positive.
These numbers would paint a more accurate real-time picture of what doctors and nurses in local hospitals are facing so far in this pandemic. They would also illustrate how many ill patients are showing up in their hospitals showing signs of the virus, who could eventually test positive.
A recent NBC report revealed a jump in hospital admissions in the Houston area does not match up with the number of cases being reported by officials in that region and suggests most coronavirus cases have gone undetected.
While limited testing has prevented officials across the state from getting a complete accounting of how many people have been infected with the coronavirus, the story said hospitals in greater Houston have seen a steep increase — 40 percent over four days — in the number of patients believed to be suffering from the virus, according to a daily census of hospital admissions collected by the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which helps coordinate emergency response efforts.
As of Monday, the 25-county region surrounding Houston reported fewer than 950 confirmed coronavirus cases among its 9.3 million residents. But on that same day, there were 996 people hospitalized in the region with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, according to the advisory council count.
Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told NBC News the disconnect between the number of positive test results and the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 suggests that a significant majority of coronavirus cases are going undetected there.
“We know that about 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 COVID-19 patients needs to be hospitalized, so what you’re seeing in hospital admissions would suggest that the actual number of cases could be five to 10 times higher in Texas than what’s been reported to this point,” he said.
Campaign data helps seniors get food
Some Texas politicians launched a campaign, without the politics. They’re using voter registration data to check in on senior citizens and find out if they need food.
State Representative John Bucy, a Democrat from Cedar Park, organized the program. Volunteers deliver food collected by Hill Country Community Ministries.
It’s a campaign idea that transcends party politics. “We’ve seen great support from both sides of the aisle,” Bucy said. “It’s just how do we get food to those in need.”