(From left) Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA) CEO Adrian Lopez, WSA board chair Juan Solis, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speak at a press conference to update the community on the WSA Rapid Response Services and wrap-around referral programs for area employers and workers affected by coronavirus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A surge in people trying to file unemployment claims due to the unprecedented number of coronavirus-related layoffs caused the state’s workforce commission website to crash briefly on Thursday.

The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) usually sees about 10,000 daily visitors to its website but had 40,000 visits on Tuesday and 50,000 on Wednesday, according to a TWC spokesman. Other states, from New York to Oregon, reported similar crashes and long waits at agency offices.

“We recognize the inconvenience this [is] causing for our customers and are working quickly with … the Texas Department of Information Resources to resolve issues and accommodate the increased number of users on TWC’s website,” the spokesman said.

He added that TWC has upgraded the site, which includes information about unemployment insurance and how to file for it, to accommodate the increasing number of users and scheduled additional changes to be made Thursday night.

Economists have estimated that more than a million people nationwide may be jobless by the end of March.

Unemployment insurance claims filed in Texas with the Department of Labor on Tuesday, the most recent data available, numbered 19,200, almost double that of Monday.

Between Saturday and Tuesday, there were 31,399 total layoffs reported to the TWC under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires employers with 50 or more employers to notify the state prior to announcing layoffs.

Thus, those numbers do not necessarily include small businesses with fewer employees, a segment that accounts for the highest percentage of business enterprises in San Antonio. And TWC has not updated the WARN list since March 10, when South by Southwest organizers laid off 60 following cancellation of the annual conference and festival in Austin.

By comparison, during the period of Feb. 1 to March 18, 2019, there were just over 2,000 layoffs reported in the state. Less than three months ago, the San Antonio metropolitan area unemployment rate was at historic lows.

Local data is not yet available for the 13-county region that Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA) serves, which includes San Antonio.

On Monday, WSA canceled area job fairs in compliance with bans against gatherings of more than 50 people. But its 16 career centers in the region remained open even as the agency worked out a plan to safeguard staff while also supporting job-seeking clients.

Though foot traffic in the centers has been minimal, case managers throughout the 13-county region are answering a higher-than-normal volume of phone calls, said Adrian Lopez, CEO of WSA.

On Tuesday, due to public health emergency orders, WSA announced that its service centers are not allowing walk-ins. Access to the centers’ agents and job-search technology is available by appointment only.

WSA employs about 300 people who work directly with clients, Lopez said.

“We’ve made some significant investments into additional IT equipment and brought in additional resources,” Lopez said, and the website is being revamped “where can people find information that’s readily available and easy to read and easy to navigate because we understand that folks are going to be in crisis situations.”

On Friday, WSA held a press conference to give updates on its Rapid Response Services and referral programs. Rapid Response Services are intervention activities and services intended to help laid-off workers quickly find new jobs.

The federal government hasn’t yet changed any laws or rules for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, but Department of Labor guidelines permit the TWC to waive work search requirements for all claimants and the waiting week period for claimants affected by COVID-19.

However, extended benefits for unemployment and disaster unemployment assistance is not yet available, stated a WSA press release.

As the number of layoffs grows, many people are calling WSA asking about unemployment benefits and how to apply. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to who is eligible, Lopez said, and the reality is that the rules and guidelines are changing rapidly.

“My main message to both residents, as well as businesses, is that if you need services, please don’t hesitate to call us or to come into our offices,” he said. “We’re here to provide services, how we get to that particular point, and whether there’s eligibility or ineligibility – we can figure that out.”

Lopez asked that those who are sick or have symptoms of coronavirus to avoid coming to the office because that would force WSA to close its doors, depriving others of access to needed job-search tools and technology.

“We don’t want people going through this crisis thinking that there are not resources out there,” Lopez said.

To make an appointment, contact WSA by calling 210-224-4357 or at its website, workforcesolutionsalamo.org.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...