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Online unemployment application gains popularity
Apply, But Not in Person

One of the most stressful events a person can experience is losing a job. Applying for unemployment insurance benefits used to add to that stress, but since 1998, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), the agency responsible for dispensing unemployment benefits, has made the application process easier and more convenient, and more improvements are on the way.

Unemployment insurance is an employer-funded program that provides workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own with financial assistance. TWC determines benefit eligibility based on a person's previous wages, the reason for separating from his or her last job and an active search for full-time work. Clients apply for benefits to establish eligibility, then must recertify their eligibility by phone every two weeks to receive checks.

In 2002, the agency made the benefits application available online, and in February 2005, Diane Rath, TWC chair, reported that 20 percent of unemployment claims come to the agency through the Internet. Brooks Myers, director of TWC Call Center Operations, said that means between 3,000 and 6,000 people per week apply online. Myers said the online service is one of a series of improvements in recent years.

Take a number
"Prior to this, we were taking all claims by telephone at six call centers," said Myers. "Before call centers, people had to come in inperson to [one of] 120 service points and wait in line for a long time."

TWC introduced telephone-based service, called Tele-Serv, in 1998. Tele-Serv call centers, called Tele-Centers, offer local phone numbers for customers in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio, and a toll-free number for customers everywhere else.

Myers said Tele-Serv was a big step in improving the convenience of the process, particularly for customers who did not live near a service point. A service point is a location where TWC representatives assist applicants with the benefit process.

"Before 1998, you had to drive 50 miles if you lived in West Texas, and then you had to wait in line for an hour," said Myers.

Myers said call centers allowed people to apply and get help by telephone from their own homes. Web-based service makes the process even more efficient.

"During busy times of the day, sometimes our customers have to wait on hold to speak to a customer service representative," Myers said. "People on the Internet can begin the process as soon as they log in."

Service anytime
Jay Klingelhoffer, the Dallas Tele-Center director, said online service frees the center's employees to focus on assisting telephone clients who need more personalized service.

"I think the benefit we see here is that service is being provided for people who it works for the best, so those people are not calling [Tele-Serv], so therefore the number of calls decrease and our phone service becomes more efficient," he said.

Furthermore, the Web-based service is available anytime, meaning greater convenience for customers.

"They can file 24-7," said Myers.

Klingelhoffer said some customers probably will still prefer to use phone-based service, but each of the counties in the Dallas area reports more than 30 percent of new claims are coming in via the Internet.

"In the D/FW area, it's very popular," he said. "It's convenient; there's no waiting. Service is available when it's convenient for the applicant--they can access it any time."

Myers said TWC is working to expand its Web-based options, including putting the ongoing certification process online.

Jason Soules, an Austin resident, applied online in February 2005.

"I thought it was very easy--extremely easy," he said.

Soules said TWC should stick with a good thing if it puts certification online.

"I think it would probably be smooth if they had it in the same format [as the application process]," said Soules. "The steps are so simple. It's really easy to not make a mistake."

Suzanne Staton