AUSTIN (KXAN) — Cathy Falkner developed a cough on Thanksgiving Day 2020. By that next Wednesday, a doctor had diagnosed her with COVID-19. A month later, while hospitalized in the intensive care unit, the doctors informed her family that she was dying.
“Her last concerns, even before she went into the hospital, was to take care of her students. Even when she could barely breathe, she was like, ‘I have to get the grades in. I have to get the grades in,” said Cathy’s sister, Suzan Falkner.
Suzan lost her baby sister, a high school teacher at Ellison High School in the Killeen Independent School District, on Jan. 7, a day before her birthday.
“It’s kind of hard to believe how many people she influenced and encouraged to keep going,” Falkner said. “Like a quiet storm, she impacted a lot of people.”
More than four months after her sister’s sudden death, it’s not just heartache that weighs on Suzan Falkner. She feels stress over the daunting mortgage she once shared with her sibling. Suzan Falkner, a 7th grade science teacher in Waco, says the Teacher Retirement System of Texas still has not delivered the death benefits due to her sister and her surviving family.
“You are entitled to your benefits and it doesn’t matter what institution it comes from. Someone should be working expeditiously to make sure that the person you are trying to take care of is being taken care of in your absence,” Suzan Falkner said.
The reality is that the Teacher Retirement System of Texas has dealt with an unprecedented workload since the start of the pandemic. It’s led to a major backlog, an issue that Barbie Pearson, the Chief Benefits Officer at TRS of Texas, acknowledged at an April board meeting.
“[Benefits Services Employees] absolutely cannot keep up with the workload,” Pearson said. “The team not being able to keep up creates a backlog and that increases the amount of time it takes for us to respond to those beneficiaries.”
Pearson said refunds, retirements and benefit estimate requests have all increased since the pandemic began. But, the hardest hit section of the department is death claims, the process in which employees must collect paperwork, verify employment, decipher benefit payouts and deliver the resulting finances to families.
According to Pearson, employees were receiving reports of around 230 to 250 new deaths in the state of Texas per week. Nowadays, the system is averaging around 350 new deaths per week. At the pandemic’s height, a record 700 or more deaths came through the system in one week.
The system was so backlogged, Pearson reports, that at one point, there were 2,000 new deaths in the queue waiting to be acknowledged. As of April 8, the queue had been reduced to around 1,500.
The TRS has made some changes to help improve workflow and clean up the queue. All employees are being required to work mandatory overtime to sort through the backlog. Other benefits employees are volunteering their time on the weekends to help with other tasks in processing. And as of Monday, nine new workers have been added to the team.
Their training will take six to eight months to complete, but Pearson said an incremental improvement should be seen immediately.
Falkner said that she hopes the TRS sorts through her sister’s paperwork soon so she and her family can finally close one of the last remaining administrative tasks following Cathy’s death. She also empathizes with anyone else who may be going through a similar process.
“Not just my family, but every family that has to go through this, and you don’t pay their benefits, I just think it’s wrong. Someone should be held accountable,” Suzan Falkner said. “They tell you they are sorry. But, telling someone you are sorry and taking no action means you are not really sorry. That sympathy means nothing to the family that is grieving.”