The number of Texans filing for unemployment has soared 1,600% in two weeks
Businesses in Dallas' Deep Ellum neighborhood are closed.
Businesses in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood are closed.
Cooper Neill for The Texas Tribune

The number of Texans applying for unemployment relief continues to climb as more workers are laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, 275,597 Texans applied — a 1,604% increase over the 16,176 Texans who filed in the week ending March 14.

The week ending March 21 saw the first spike of the pandemic, with 155,657 out-of-work Texans applying for relief. Both numbers are miles higher than the worst week of the Great Recession, which saw 49,398 Texans file for benefits, and the 63,788 who filed after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area. In the last year, the Texas Workforce Commission has typically fielded 13,600 individuals applying each week.

Those numbers are expected to rise, as Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a statewide stay-at-home order, which allows only essential businesses to operate through April 30. Previously, many cities and counties had announced similar orders.

Meanwhile, many Texans who have been trying to apply for unemployment relief for days or weeks say they can’t get through. The crush of people filing has overwhelmed the Texas Workforce Commission’s capacity, leading to busy phone lines and website outages.

Both the commission and Abbott have assured worried Texans that all who need relief will get it.

“Just know that you’re not going to be denied your claim just because you’re having a hard time getting through,” Abbott said at a press conference Tuesday.

Last Thursday, TWC Executive Director Ed Serna asked Texans to “have a little patience with us.” The commission is hiring additional staff, extending operating hours and beefing up server capacity to address the increased need. So far, the commission has hired 700 new employees, Abbott told KSAT-TV on Thursday.

But state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, said in a tweet that Texas’ insufficient unemployment resources aren’t unique to the pandemic.

“This isn’t a case of a good system overwhelmed by unprecedented demand,” he tweeted. “This is a *bad* system overwhelmed by unprecedented demand. Even in good times, only 1/3 of unemployed Texans get unemployment benefits.”

Talarico cited underfunding and the exclusion of gig and part-time workers.

“This pandemic will continue to expose broken state policies that were designed to hurt some of us, but really hurt ALL of us,” he added.

State unemployment agencies may be getting federal help soon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a press call Thursday.

“Some are much better prepared than others or just have a different timetable,” Pelosi said. “So one of the things that we may have to do is to get more resources to the state agencies that do this. Again, though, we want this done as soon as possible, and we won’t have another bill for a few weeks at least because we’re not [in Washington]. But again, we can give some hope to people that that would be a priority.”

Already, some requirements for unemployment benefits have been relaxed: There is no longer a work search requirement, and anyone who was previously overpaid while receiving unemployment won’t see benefits reduced. But other Texans still fall through the cracks. Gig workers and those who are self-employed remain ineligible for state unemployment benefits, but they may be covered by the recently passed federal stimulus package.

Nationally, the employment situation is just as dire: 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, doubling the previous week when 3.3 million Americans filed and again setting a record, previously held by the 1982 recession.