HOUSTON – For millions of Americans, when businesses were forced to shut down to quell the spread of coronavirus, they filed unemployment insurance claims to get money rolling in again. Here in Texas, 4.7 million unemployment insurance claims have been processed by the Texas Workforce Commission since March 14, 2020.
With thousands logging in and calling in to apply for benefits, as you can imagine, many Texas residents experienced shocking delays and wait times with filing their initial claims.
According to a TWC representative, the agency has handled 4.4 million calls over the past few months and paid out more than $28.3 billion, using state and federal funds.
‘Ineligible’ status leaves Houston woman scrambling
For a small percentage of those who made it past initial filing delays and were able to file successful claims, they were then shocked to become completely cut off even after payments had begun.
That’s what happened to Kokesia Jones about 12 weeks ago when she received notice from TWC that she was “ineligible” for payment because of an overpayment. Jones was laid off from her job at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport in March. When she filed for unemployment insurance benefits, her claim was successfully submitted and she began receiving payments.
But then, those payments came to a screeching halt.
“It said that ’you have been overpaid unemployment benefits. We cannot pay you benefits until the overpayment is paid,’” Jones said of the notice she received when she logged in to file her unemployment insurance claim.
Kokesia was told she had been overpaid $1,092 in 2017 and $3,096 in 2020, for a total overpayment of $4,188.
According to the correspondence, until she pays the money back, she is not going to receive any new payments.
The other 1%
What happened to Jones has only happened to about 1% of claimants, according to Cisco Gamez a TWC spokesperson.
“I can’t talk about her specific claim, I don’t know the person. But those payments were not stopped because she had an overpayment, there may be something else,” Gamez said.
But should her payments have been stopped at all?
According to the TWC, even if you owed money for an overpayment, as of March 30, the normal “absorption and offset of regular state benefits has been temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
That means if a claimant was otherwise eligible for benefits, the benefits would still be paid to the claimant instead of using it to repay the overpayment.
Also, as of March 23, collection through the Treasury Offset Program was also temporarily suspended, so no collection action would be taken against claimants.
“So if you owe money, and you can’t afford to pay it back right now, it’s not going to go to collections. We’re gonna work with you to make a payment plan. And another thing, and this isn’t just right now…if you owe money to the state and you owe a debt, to Texas Workforce…there’s 0% interest on that,” Gamez said. “So if you owe $500 today, 10 years from now it’s still $500, unless it’s (for a claim) that’s fraudulent.”
But for Jones and others in this situation, the suspension of payments has added stress to the already stressful situation of being unemployed.
“I’m angry, I’m pissed, I want to scream, I’m losing hope,” Jones said.
Spencer Solves It
KPRC 2’s Bill Spencer took Jones’ case to the folks at TWC and her file was examined. Through the process, it was determined that she was indeed eligible for payment. The agency will also go back and pay her for all the weeks of non-payment.
What to do if your payments were suspended
These are the five important steps you should take immediately, according to TWC:
- Check your email you used to create your account and make sure you haven’t missed important correspondence from TWC regarding your claim
- Check your account information on the Unemployment Benefit Services system to make sure your name, phone number, email and home address is correct. TWC may try to call, send electronic notifications or letters in the mail in order to contact and share information
- Call 1 (800) 939-6631 to discuss your claim with a representative. The phone lines are open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Chat with “Larry the Chat Bot,” an artificial intelligence program that has helped over 1.5 million Texans and answered more than 7 million questions. Larry is available on the TWC website to answer questions and you can also add your name to a call queue for a call back from a representative