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Coronavirus in Texas

The number of Texans filing for unemployment increased 860% in a week

Two weeks ago, 16,176 Texans filed for new unemployment benefits. But just one week later — after leaders shut down businesses across the state to slow the spread of the new coronavirus — that number jumped up to 155,657 out-of-work people filing for unemployment relief.

Shuttered bars on Austin's Sixth street during the COVID-19 pandemic on March 19, 2020.

The number of Texans filing for unemployment relief last week jumped an eye-popping 860% over the previous week, surpassing the number of people who filed weekly during the Great Recession that lasted from late 2007 to mid 2009.

Two weeks ago, 16,176 Texans filed for new unemployment benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But just one week later — after leaders shut down businesses across the state to slow the spread of the new coronavirus — that number jumped up to 155,657 out-of-work people filing for unemployment relief.

That's a 215% more than the worst recorded week during the Great Recession in Texas, when almost 50,000 people filed in a week.

Last year, about 13,600 Texans filed for new unemployment benefits per week.

“The unique situation that we’re presented with, with regard to COVID-19, is different than anything anybody in the state has dealt with, with regard to the sheer magnitude of the problem as well as the pervasive nature of the problem and the number of individuals it’s affecting and families it’s affecting," said Ed Serna, the executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission, during a Facebook Live Q&A Wednesday.

Nationally, nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment relief last week, shattering the previous 1982 record and surging 3 million from the earlier week's seasonally adjusted figure.

Layoffs and furloughs have continued to roll in across industries like hospitality and retail in recent weeks as the state banned bars and some restaurant operations, local shelter-in-place orders have prohibited nonessential in-person businesses, and domestic and international travel have been discouraged. Even some newspapers have slashed staff after companies have pulled advertising dollars.

How to apply for unemployment in Texas

The Texas Workforce Commission is taking sweeping action to address the influx of claims, Serna said. Plans include hiring additional call center staff and increasing server capacity to accommodate the now nearly 30,000 claims a day, he said. About 75% of commission staff members are working from home.

“We know that it is very frustrating, and it is also at times very scary, for individuals who have been let go from work, oftentimes for the first time let go from work," Serna said. "I assure you that we will help everyone that needs help. I know it is hard to hear this, but I ask that you have just a little bit of patience with us.”

Texans can apply for benefits any time online or call the toll-free number 800-939-6631 from from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The office is also open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays starting this week.

Serna assured viewers that there are enough funds for everyone who needs them, and as those funds are depleted, the state can turn to other sources, like federal assistance.

The commission has eliminated the work search requirement and the waiting period given the nature of the situation, Serna said. And while normally any debts claimants owe to the commission — typically the result of overpayment during previous periods on unemployment relief — are deducted from any new benefits they receive, this practice will also be suspended.

But Texans can still only receive benefits for 26 weeks. This time frame can’t be extended without federal government action, Serna said. And those who are self-employed or work on a contract basis are still ineligible for unemployment benefits under the law, he added.

Lingering questions will be answered in the $2 trillion stimulus package working its way through Congress, which will reportedly add 13 weeks to the six-month relief period most states allow and extend benefits to gig workers and others not classed as employees.

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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