FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) — CBS 11’s Doug Dunbar spoke with Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Ed Serna Thursday, who says all freelance workers, independent workers, etc., should reapply for jobless benefits as soon as possible.

The full interview is below:

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Doug Dunbar

Ed, let’s let’s dive right in. And let’s preface this by saying I’m going to ask a lot of viewer questions that have come into us. At the same time. I want to talk perspective from your end of the fence on scams as well, because we’ve reported extensively on that. So let’s, let’s assume we’re going to cover all of that. But where I want to start with you is probably one of the most frequently asked questions – since we spoke on our special on Monday – and that is, ‘Where’s the middle ground? And what do they do if I’m a freelancer? If I’m an independent contractor?’ These people all tell us that they’re running into brick walls, and they don’t even know if they’re entitled to benefits in many cases. So can you clarify freelancers? Independent contractors, what about them?

Ed Serna

Sure. If you’re a freelancer, self employed, independent contractor, even if you work for a nonprofit: The Cares Act, which was signed a couple of Fridays ago by the president (and we’re operating under that now) has you eligible for what’s called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance… so PUA. And what that means is, you’ll come in through the regular unemployment insurance system. And we recognize that our phone lines are clogged. And I will say, we’ve added an additional 450 people, and we’re getting ready to add another 300 by this Friday. So we continue to increase that. But either way you either call us or you go online, submit your application. All that you’ll need is a copy of your tax return with the schedules that shows your income and everything.

Dunbar

Now, can I pause you there for one second, because some people have said that they’ve tried the online and they’re running into roadblocks with certain questions, I guess, where they can’t put in an employer per se or a name of something — maybe the TWC recognizes.

Serna

Well, we’ve been made aware of those and we’re making changes to those but when you get to that employer, you can enter yourself as the employer. What we’re doing is we’re creating a special code that just basically creates a blank employer so that you can bypass that.

Dunbar

Okay, so that was an issue and you have recognized it and you’re working on rectifying that.

Serna

Yes, sir. It was an issue. We recognized it because previously these individuals weren’t eligible for unemployment. We’re fixing that. You can enter your business as your employer. You’ll have to have your tax return with the schedules. If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, because the IRS extended the tax due date (if you haven’t filed it, or you don’t have it done yet) just give us an estimate of what your income was. What you’ll end up doing is you’ll end up getting the minimum amount for for self employed or freelancers or contract employees. The minimum amount of benefit is $207 a week plus the $600. So at a minimum, that individual will get $807 a week.

Dunbar

Okay, the $600 you are talking about is from The Cares Act?

Serna

Yes, sir. Everybody’s that qualifies for benefits is getting the $600. For self-employed or freelancers or contract employees, the minimum benefit is $207 plus the $600. I don’t want somebody to think that that excluded the $600.

Dunbar

And for those who missed our discussion Monday, the $600 from the federal government is going to come through TWC. And if I recall correctly, you I believe told me that that $600 is in benefits that are going out this week. Is that accurate?

Serna

Yes, sir. We started paying that out on the on the 12th. So you’re right. But if you don’t have your tax return, we’ll provide you with the minimum benefit. And then when you do get your tax return you have all the way until December 31 of this year, to call us back and say here’s my new actual tax return and we’ll adjust that that amount. You are eligible and I would encourage you to either call or use the online system we should have had that problem fixed. But if not just enter in your company as the employer.

Dunbar

And the website is set now where if I put in Doug Dunbar just my name as the employer, your site will now say, okay, you can move forward in the process.

Serna

Yes, sir. It should say that you can move forward in the process.

Dunbar

Let’s get to some questions from some so many of our viewers, Gerald Bridges wrote in: He said he got through and he filed this week he received an email from TWC. [It] had a link that said, ‘Hey, we need you to confirm your email address,’ which is not out of the ordinary. He says the link won’t open because the site at TWC — at least what he’s seeing on his end — is outdated. He gets a some kind of security message that it’s not secure enough.

Serna

That’s good for me to note, I had not heard that from anybody. I know that we updated our system significantly in order to handle the volume, which we talked about last time.

Dunbar

And maybe it relates to occasionally… because I’ve seen security certificates or security authentications or things like that, where maybe your side of the fence hasn’t updated something and his computer senses that.

Serna

It may be rejecting us, or our system may end up finding that there’s an issue in his system coming to us or the information that he’s giving us.

Dunbar

So is the remedy there just to keep trying to get a person on the phone for Gerald?

Serna

Keep trying to get a person on the phone. I’m going to check when we get done with our interview, I’ll call our chief information officer asked her to look into that situation. If it is that problem does exist, we will fix it immediately. But also, a lot of times we already have some of his information, we’re going to be doing some we’re calling outbound calls where know that individuals have got problems. We’ve got a site, we call “assignments,” we’ve got those going out. And we’re going to probably be reaching out to him, but he should continue to try to call us. And I know that’s a horrible thing to hear right now, considering, we still have not seen a turn in that chart that I sent you with the line shooting straight up. We still haven’t seen a turn or a bend yet. But we continue to work to add more people that are calling and that can receive calls as well as people that are now doing outbound calls.

Dunbar

Well, I will reiterate what I said in our special on Monday night, as you’re so kind to join us again, and that is everybody may not necessarily love the answer that you give. But the bottom line is we appreciate the fact that you’re sitting down and you are giving answers to the best that you can right now. So there’s appreciation in that. Linease (sp) Jones wrote earlier — and this is one of those unique situations — she works at a nonprofit preschool for a church… she ends up laid off, not eligible for state of employment because of nonprofit status… how does she end up winding her way to the federal benefits without going through the state? I think she feels confused right now what would you tell her?

Serna

I understand. And that’s probably one of the most easiest things to be confused about. The federal benefits and the Cares Act are administered through the state. So everything comes through us — through TWC. So the normal state unemployment, the special unemployment for the cares act, including her, which is a nonprofit all comes through the state. So she would use the same application. We’ve made changes to our application, to be able to accept individuals who work for nonprofits like her, she would complete that application at a very minimum, the bare minimum, her benefit will be the $207 plus the $600 from the cares act, and it’ll be in a single payment. So he she does still need to contact us try to go online or to call us. Again, we’d recommend that you that you try online first, because that’s what the majority of our claims are coming in. Go online or call us to come through us. There is no federal entity to go through for this.

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Dunbar

So Jonathan Trevino tells me he was laid off December 30, 2019, then ended up at Naval Air Station — Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth. He got another job… laid off from there, March 10. And he said he filed the very next day was, was then denied, hasn’t found any kind of work since. Where does his case land now? So he had a job, he lost it, he gets another job right away. He loses that less than four months later — it looks like — and he tried to file and is denied.

Serna

He’s still eligible for benefits. The problem is that when our system goes back and looks to try to find that last employer, we’re finding contradictory information. We’re going to try to reach out to him and I’ll get the specific information from you or I’ll give an address that he can send me specific information. But he’ll be eligible for benefits and we’ll we’ll end up talking to him. That’ll be one of those assignments that I mentioned, where we will call him and say, Okay, here’s how we’re going to rectify this. He provides us with some information, we get them, we get them good to go.

Dunbar

Okay. We’re going to work to connect you that with Mr. Cody. Thank you. We could do that. Regarding backdating benefits. What if TWC can’t get ahold of a company to verify last paycheck or pay date what happens? And I know we’ve talked about this in our very initial discussion, but a lot of people brought this question up again, so I wanted to ask it again and give you a chance to answer one more time.

Serna

Sure. First of all, we have employment records for all the employees and employers in the State of Texas. We’ll be able to find some of that information on our system. If we try to contact the employer and the employers close because of COVID-19.

Dunbar

And I think that’s a big scenario that people are running into. And they’re fearful that that just means they’re kind of hosed?

Serna

I’m sorry, they’re not at all. They’re not at all upside down on that deal or hosed. They In fact, will be able to verify that. We’ll probably just need some clarification from them to confirm who that last employer was. Because they may have gotten another job and in a short period of time, kind of like the previous example, except their new employer still hasn’t reported anything because that happens every quarter. But we’ll be able to find that information, get them set up, get them the benefits that they need, so that they can they can go on and we will back date to the date of separation.

Dunbar

Michael Fletcher — a unique situation. He says he filed on March 23 — so not that long ago. He said he was approved and he had a problem with the first payment request that he says now has ineligible to get any benefits. And he said he’s done what is known as the Teleserve system. He said he answered all the questions and now he’s sitting here without benefits… doesn’t have a job. And obviously, he’s one of the many who cannot get a hold of you or hasn’t had any success with that. It sounds like he’s caught in a little no man’s land at the moment. What do you tell him?

Serna

Unfortunately, that’s a bad situation. And we’re going to get we’re going to get that fixed, we’re actually going to reach out to him, because we’ve already got that information from the claim that he filed. He’s not ineligible, completely. It was a system setting. And it’s an accurate system setting that, normally when there’s some kind of a conflict like that the default in the system is to say, ‘We need to hold off on any payments to you until we can fix this problem, because we don’t know that we’re going to be paying you the right amount.’ We have his information we’ll be reaching out to him. We have over 200,000 what we call ‘assignments,’ which are things just like that, that are open items. And we’ve got people that are calling out to resolve those issues so we can get benefits to the individual that deserve them.

Dunbar

Well, let’s assume maybe Michael’s watching right now. And you just mentioned you have 200,000 of these kinds of elements where you need to make an outbound phone call. With manpower and everything you’re dealing with already with inbounds what’s the reality for a guy like Michael in terms of, ‘Okay, I gotta wait for you to call.’ What’s reality? Is that days, is it a week is a two weeks?

Serna

It’s not going to be more than a week, it’ll probably be days. So we almost have as many people we’ve now. We’ve now set up teams that almost equal the count of the incoming calls. Early on, it was a one to one match for every person that we had taking an incoming call, we had someone making an outbound call. The incoming call volume, staff numbers have increased, because of all the outside call centers that we’ve added to take the calls, when we’ve also increased the number of people that are doing outbound calls. So we have 300 staff, from our 28 workforce boards that we have reassigned to make outbound calls. We have help from the Texas Legislature, the Senate and the House, have staff that have volunteered to assist us and that’s about 300 people. And then we already had probably close to 300 or 400 people making outbound calls. So the likelihood is very high. He continue to try to call as well, but maybe by the time he calls, we would have already contacted him and by the time we contact him and I’m seeing this happen more, he was able to get in and get that resolved, but we will get that issue resolved for him. And that’s another one I wouldn’t mind maybe getting that information directly from you and having me my office connected directly with him so we get that addressed.

Dunbar

I want to ask you about maybe emailing to TWC. Is that possibly a better Avenue? And the whole reason I asked that is because Brian New the story — just yesterday — on a woman who was watching you with us on Monday, and she ended up emailing. Apparently she was one of those people who had a pin issue or a password issue. And she was in the same in the same boat. She couldn’t get anybody on the phone, she’s frustrated. So she threw a shot in the dark and said, ‘I’m gonna try an email,’ and lo and behold, she did get a reply in her situation was remedied. Would email be an option for some people? I mean, it clearly worked for her.

Serna

It’s hard to say that email will work because, like — if we talk about me — if someone emails me, they’re going to be buried in a volume. I’m going to be paging through try to find it. Literally paging through try to find emails that are from our customers. We’ve considered dedicated email accounts to have people call us and say here’s an email account that’s dedicated if you have a user ID or password problem. Here’s another one if you have an ineligibility problem. The only issue that we have with that is then we pull people either off the calls, or off the outbound calls, to address emails. And those emails just turn into more assignments. But we are exploring that that’s not a bad idea.

Dunbar

But for reference, this is not a system that you have in place. She just basically got lucky as what it says here?

Serna

And actually, I’d be curious, because we have so many people calling out on password resets and pin and user ID resets. I just be kind of personally curious to know if it was because of the email or because she was already on a list that somebody was calling and it was coincidental that she got called by somebody. Unless they said, hey, look, I got an email from you. Put it to me, and I’m calling you therefore when we’ve got again, that’s a priority for us and we’ve got a whole lot of people that are outbound calling, and they do it, you know, anytime during the day plus at night a little bit, we don’t bother people late at night, but we’re all the way to about eight o’clock at night. We’re calling out to try to fix problems. So it might have been coincidental and less about the email but if it worked, that would be fine. But it’s not a normal situation

Dunbar

So email is not a normal practice at the moment.

Serna

No sir no, because of the volume that could get buried and there aren’t really filters to work through them.

Dunbar

Let’s touch a little bit on the likelihood of scams that are out there. And I can actually tee this up with a personal story from Suzanne Smithwick (sp) who wrote me on Facebook. Regarding calls about pins and password issues… you have said Monday, you have said today, TWC is proactively practically making calls to [people]. She’s caught in this place where — she hears that — but her company at the same time, she says told her never give any information over the phone. There’s so many scammers out there. Would you — for everybody’s benefit — clarify when the TWC calls, what are you asking that individual for to be given over the phone, so that they have a roadmap? And they and if they hear some other stuff as far as personal information they know that’s probably a scam. Define for us what you’re asking for when you call?

Serna

Sure. The big challenge for us is that we have a lot of volunteers that are using phones that aren’t TWC phones. So they’re not going to have that kind of identifier on it.

Dunbar

That’s actually very good to know. Okay, so the call from the TWC then could come from just a series of numbers.

Serna

It could come from somebody like these legislative staffers that are helping us. It may end up coming from could be Bob Smith’s phone, right? They’re their members phone or an individual’s phone or a blocked phone. They may be blocking their cell number because they don’t want to have a lot of return calls. That’s really good to know. Actually. The biggest piece of information that I can provide anybody is when we give assignments out to individuals, we give them information about the individual that they’re calling. So if you get a call, and we told everybody that calls this as well, and we or everybody that is calling for us this as well, this would be great for your viewers to know. If you receive a call from somebody that says they’re helping TWC with the call volume, and they’re here to finalize your claim or fix your claim or something. If they ask you for information, like, ‘Can you just give me your social security number?’ or, ‘Can you give me your last employer’ or ‘Can you give me *this*’ at the very beginning, just stop them and say, ‘I tell you what, you’re looking at my claim right now. How about if you tell me when I filed my claim? What’s the date on there?’ Your viewers should ask the caller, ‘Tell me about my claim and tell me the pieces that are missing. Be very specific.’ That individual that’s calling, we’ll know that information will be able to say, “Well Ed, I see that you filed your claim a week ago. And I’m calling to verify that your last employer was the State of Texas.’ Or, ‘Well Ed, I know that this was the phone number that you gave us on the application, and you filed that application on March 31. And you did it online.’ The other thing I wanted to add is we found out recently that there are also scam sites, online sites on Facebook, or maybe web pages that look like the TWC site, but aren’t really the TWC site. Our site ends with either .org or .gov or in an extreme case our site is pwc.state.tx.us. We had an unfortunate situation a call to my office this morning. A young man who had found a site on Facebook had the state seal or our seal on it and everything. And it said, if you’re trying to file for unemployment, just enter your social security number here. He did. Didn’t ask for any other information or ask for very little other information. And he hit enter. It said you’ve been confirmed, call this number. And it was our 800 number, by the way. He called number on Sunday, and to confirm everything, so it even gave him a specific date. When he called our operator said, ‘Well, I don’t have any record.’ So he called my office and we told him, we don’t have a record of you. And he described it to us and we had to unfortunately tell him that that’s not us. We don’t know where you entered your social security number, but that’s not the process. We haven’t we have an application. So please make sure that you’re at our .gov site or a .org site that has got TWC.state in it to enter your information. And [we] definitely don’t have anything on social media in order to get an application. We’re not we’re not doing that.

Dunbar

That is all good information and good to know. And on behalf of our viewers, let me say once again, thank you for taking your time. You’re working for all of them we know. And for us to get a few minutes with you, we do appreciate it because you’re doing a great service at least giving some people some answers and a little bit of hope that they’re going to get some money in their bank account sooner than later so they can pay the rent.

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Serna

Thank you very much. We appreciate you helping us. We at TWC appreciate you helping us by getting getting information out to your viewers. It only it only makes our jobs a whole lot easier to be able to have them informed. So thank you very much for allowing us the opportunity.