It's been a challenging and unpredictable year and a half for unemployment compensation professionals across the state. Unemployment in Texas peaked at a record 12.9% in April 2020, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, as employers shed jobs in response to the economic downturn caused by stay-at-home orders. The unemployment rate has slowly declined since then, but the sheer volume of claims — combined with evolving rules for the various federal aid programs and an influx of fraudulent claims — have created challenges at every turn for those who administer unemployment programs.
Thankfully for the 226 member entities of the Texas Association of Counties Unemployment Compensation Group Account Fund, they have the unflappable Cynthia Brannen to assist them. Brannen is the Unemployment Fund Administrator and Retiree Program Coordinator. Her long association with the fund and her customer service focus have been a superb combination during the uncertainty of the past year.
"Cynthia is a wealth of knowledge about TAC's Unemployment Fund and Texas' complex unemployment compensation system," says Health and Benefits Services Director Quincy Quinlan. "More importantly, her leadership and customer service throughout the pandemic have been incredible. She's been the calm in the storm for our members."
What is your background? How did you get into unemployment administration?
I joined TAC in 2001, and I have held a number of roles, most of which have had something to do with unemployment. Over time I just kept learning more about unemployment, until I was considered TAC's subject matter expert. For the past five years, I've been the Unemployment Fund Administrator and Retiree Program Coordinator. I have a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin.
The pandemic had a profound impact on unemployment, and consequently, the Unemployment Fund. How has your work changed since March 2020?
I've been doing unemployment for a long time, and I've never seen anything like what we are experiencing now, and what the state is experiencing. In 2019, the Unemployment Fund claims amounted to $3.1 million. In 2020, our claims total was $11.5 million. On top of that, the fund has been hit with fraudulent claims, which has, understandably, generated a lot of panicked phone calls and emails. The sheer volume of claims, in addition to the challenges of implementing the federal credits from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, created a bottleneck and backlog from the state that trickles down to the Fund and then to counties.
The backlog means counties learned about the 2022 rates later than they normally would, which puts them in a bind for budget development. On a positive note, our members won't experience the full rate impact of the pandemic as many other employers will, since our rates are based on the past four years of claims.
"Cynthia is a wealth of knowledge about TAC's Unemployment Fund and Texas' complex unemployment compensation system. More importantly, her leadership and customer service throughout the pandemic have been incredible. She's been the calm in the storm for our members."
— Health and Benefits Services
Director Quincy Quinlan
What does great customer service look like when there are so many factors outside of your control?
The uncertainty of when we would receive invoices and reports from the state, as well as how to apply and account for the CARES Act credits, has been hard for all of us. The best I can do is to be as transparent as possible with members about what is happening, and to be accessible to them and listen. A little understanding goes a long way.
What's on the horizon? Any new initiatives?
The volume of calls about unemployment has slowed down, and that's one positive indicator that things are on the right track.
I'm excited about some forthcoming improvements to the CountyChoice Silver program, which is the TAC Health and Employee Benefits Pool retiree benefits program for counties. We have a new agreement with Transamerica (in collaboration with Amwins) for the next two years, which offers increased flexibility and reduced rates for members beginning in 2022.
What have you learned about yourself as a result of working through the pandemic?
It's been crazy and challenging on all fronts, but I'm learning I can only do what I can do. Sometimes it helps to let an issue percolate in the back of my brain while I work on something else. The brain can be an amazing thing. When problems are left to simmer in the back, answers have a way of rising out of the chaos. I'm grateful for Andrea Walker, who joined TAC within the last year and assists me with the Unemployment Fund and the retiree program.
I celebrated 20 years at TAC earlier this year. Our mission to help counties achieve better solutions results in Texas being better and stronger, and it's been so rewarding to be part of that.