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Coronavirus
Texas wants $32 million in unemployment benefits back after finding 46,000 people were overpaid

More than 46,000 Texans who lost their jobs in recent months, mostly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially were overpaid by the Texas Workforce Commission, which now wants $32 million in unemployment benefits back.

“State law requires TWC to recover all unemployment benefits overpayments,” Cisco Gamez, spokesman for the state agency, said in an email. “Overpayments stay on your record until repaid.”

It’s unclear how many of those overpayments, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, are the result of fraud and how many are the result of TWC’s errors. The agency had not responded to requests for that information by late Monday.

The agency also did not immediately provide the average amount that was overpaid.

The news of the overpayments came on a day when 5,318 more Texans tested positive for COVID-19 than on Sunday. In all, 200,557 positive cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed in Texas, with 2,655 deaths as of Monday evening. Texas has recorded an estimated 103,782 recoveries and has an estimated 94,120 active cases of the virus.

Overpayment of benefits must be repaid even if the state is to blame for the overpayment, or if it was otherwise not the recipient’s fault. If TWC finds unemployment fraud in a case, the person has to give back the benefits and pay a 15% penalty.

Gamez on Monday originally said the agency cannot pay someone benefits if they have been previously overpaid. But later Monday, he said the agency eliminated that rule earlier this year.

If the person who receives the notification of overpayment doesn’t send back the money, the state comptroller can recover the money by withholding certain funds, including lottery winnings, unclaimed property, unemployment benefits and other state job-related expenses. Some state funding for college students cannot be released until a repayment is made in full.

Claimants who have received notices can appeal the process, but TWC can take legal action, too, if they don’t recover the money.

“There is no statute of limitations on debts owed to the state,” Gamez said in an email. “TWC cannot forgive or dismiss the overpayment, and there is no exception for hardship.”

James Richards is one of the people being asked for part of his unemployment benefits back. Last year, after a heart attack, he had to stop working as a welder at a company that builds construction equipment in Fort Worth.

His supervisor gave him a new job as a janitor but, as business slowed down because of the pandemic, he was let go in late March. Without a salary, he depended on the unemployment checks to pay for his doctor appointments and medication.

“They sent me two checks for $1,700, but then they canceled it and sent me a bill to get $1,700 back,” the 47-year-old said.

According to the correspondence from TWC, they were revoking his benefits because allegedly he left the company on his own. But Richards said that wasn’t the case and is appealing. In the meantime, he is depending on his partner’s salary as a teacher to pay their mortgage.

“I’m feeling frustrated. This should have never been taken away in the first place,” Richards said. “Now I’m in a position that I can’t afford my truck; I’m not able to go to the doctor; I don’t have any of my income. We are just trying to afford the house.”

As of late June, 2.7 million Texans had filed for unemployment relief since mid-March, but TWC has struggled to keep up with the high levels of demand. Since the pandemic started, countless Texans have experienced problems accessing these benefits, encountering busy phone lines and an overwhelmed application website.


Local
centerpiece
Longview protesters demand justice for Fort Hood soldier whose remains found buried

When Diana Monsivais heard U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén’s mother plead for her daughter to be found, she was moved to take action.

And her action caused about 50 people to show up Monday evening and demand justice at a protest Monsivais organized for Guillén at Loop 281 and Judson Road in Longview.

“When I heard her mom speak, that broke my heart, that made my heart move,” Monsivais said. “Especially having a girlfriend that’s in the military, it hits me hard. And you just want people to be safe, especially when they’re serving us to protect us.”

Guillén, 20, went missing from the Fort Hood military base in April, according to the Texas Tribune. The family said Guillén told them before she went missing that she was being sexually harassed on base.

Guillén’s remains were found over the weekend — about two months after she went missing — buried near the base, according to the Tribune.

The key suspect in her death, Aaron Robinson — also a soldier on the base and whom Guillén had said was harassing her — killed himself when confronted by the police.

The Tribune reported a criminal complaint alleged that Robinson, 20, admitted to another woman that he killed a female soldier by bludgeoning her with a hammer in April and then took her body to a remote spot in Bell County. The woman, Cecily Aguilar, 22, faces a federal charge of conspiracy to tamper with evidence. She’s accused of helping mutilate and dispose of Guillén’s body.

Several protests have sprung up in Texas cities demanding justice for the Mexican American soldier and for her family, including an investigation into the base.

Longview protesters chanted “Queremos? Justicia. Para quien? Vanessa,” which translates to “What do we want? Justice. For whom? Vanessa.”

Other signs read, “No justice, no peace” and “Say her name, Vanessa.”

“We just want justice and for Fort Hood to be investigated for any sexual assault,” Monsivais said. “We want the public to know what’s going on at some military bases, and I just want our military safe. We want everybody to be safe and protected, and that’s not what we’re getting right now.”

Protesters were joined by Longview Black Lives Matter allies to show unity.

“It’s awesome; it shows their support,” Monsivais said. “They didn’t hesitate to come and collaborate with us. We’re all trying to fight the same fight, and that’s for justice.”

Shae Harkless, an organizer with Longview Black Lives Matter, said the group typically protests on Monday evenings but decided to show support for Guillén.

“Black Lives Matter is not just about black lives,” Harkless said. “It’s about all lives, all injustices, and that’s what we’re standing out here for, for all of us. I know you hear we only care about black lives. No, I care about all lives.

“We all need to come together and pull together to make this world better for all of us,” she said. “Latinos, they see injustices, too. We’ve got children locked up in cages and stuff that needs to be done, so we all need to stand together.”

Mayra Venegas said she knows people affected by issues at Fort Hood, and the protest was her way of showing them support.

“I felt lots of anger and just upset as this is coming out more,” she said. “She’s a Mexican American that decided to put her life on the line to serve her country. And there is a lot of people that are coming together, but there’s also a lot that are making this a race thing. But we need to look at the issue at hand and see what the root of the issue is and bring justice to it.”


Local
Longview closes water utilities lobby, Kilgore shuts down pool after positive COVID employees

From Staff Reports

The lobby to the water utilities office inside Longview City Hall is temporarily closed, after two employees there tested positive for COVID-19, and the Kilgore City Pool has been closed after two lifeguards tested positive.

Longview city spokesman Shawn Hara said a notification was not made to the general public because the chance of exposure was limited. Employees there who deal with the public are separated from customers by glass partitions.

“You don’t have face-to-face contact,” Hara said, and employees typically are wearing masks.

The situation left that office with reduced staff, necessitating the closure of the water utilities lobby last Wednesday. Plans are to reopen it next Monday if not sooner, Hara said.

The drive-thru remains open, as does City Hall overall. Hara said 18% to 20% of customers use the lobby or drive-thru. The rest pay online, by phone, by bank draft or mail.

City Hall employees have been notified of the COVID-19 case, he said.

The city has had several other employees test positive, Hara said, but not in a way that affected the general public or that required office closures. He said the city has followed CDC guidelines in determining which employees would need to self-isolate.

Kilgore announced the closure of its pool Monday in a post on its Facebook page, saying the two lifeguards who tested positive had little contact with customers and did not come to work showing symptoms.

“As a precautionary measure, we are temporarily closing the Kilgore City Pool,” the post read. “We have notified any patrons who had direct contact with those two individuals.”

The city encouraged anyone who had visited the pool to follow guidelines in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city said a reopening date, when it is determined, would be posted on its Facebook page and on its website.

“The reason for the closure is so that we can isolate other staff who may have been exposed,” the post read. “By doing this, we are hoping to eliminate any chance of spreading it if other staff come down with COVID or become contagious.”

News of the closure came on the day Kilgore City Hall closed to walk-in traffic because of a spike in COVID-19 cases across Northeast Texas.

“Generally, this is a reaction to a spike in COVID-19 cases across Northeast Texas,” City Manager Josh Selleck said. “Specifically, in this area, the three folks at Gladewater City Hall who handle utility billing have all tested positive for COVID, and there’s nobody there right now to take care of that. We don’t want that happening here.”

Most people who come into City Hall, according to Selleck, come in to pay their water bill. For now, Kilgore residents will have to pay online at cityofkilgore.com or place their check in the outdoor kiosk on the north wall of the building.

Residents also can sign up for a bank draft or pay by phone at (903) 984-5081.

“At least for now, this is temporary,” Selleck said.


Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner urges Texas GOP to cancel its convention

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner encouraged the Republican Party of Texas on Monday to cancel its in-person convention in Houston next week and warned that should the event continue, health inspectors would have the authority to shut down the gathering if certain guidelines are not followed.

Turner said that he planned to send a letter to members of the State Republican Executive Committee, the state party’s governing board, outlining conditions the party must follow in order to hold the convention.

“I do not think it is wise or prudent to hold a convention of 6,000 or more,” the Houston mayor’s office tweeted. “I am asking them to have a virtual event.”

A spokesperson for the state party did not immediately respond to a request for comment. And a copy of Turner’s letter to the SREC was not immediately available.

“Health inspectors will be on-site for the entire convention to ensure all guidelines are being followed,” Turner’s office tweeted. “If they are not, the inspectors have the authority to shut down the convention.”

Last week, the SREC voted 40-20 to proceed with the in-person convention July 16 to 18 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

Thursday’s vote came on the heels of Gov. Greg Abbott issuing a statewide mask mandate in an attempt to curb the surge of coronavirus cases, which state party Chair James Dickey said meant that masks would be required for most of the convention, though they were not previously. The SREC met again virtually on Sunday and tweaked the party’s rules to allow for what Dickey has described as an “ultimate contingency plan” to host the convention online if circumstances require it.

Asked Monday about Turner’s request, Abbott continued to decline to take a personal position on the party’s plans other than to urge caution.

“Obviously I think whatever happens —whether it be, listen, this convention or any action that anybody takes — we’re at a time with the outbreak of the coronavirus where public safety needs to be a paramount concern,” Abbott said during an interview with KDFW in Dallas.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Turner recently removed language from an executive order and effectively took away his own authority to cancel the convention.

Turner also called on event sponsors to push the party to move the event online, tweeting that all other conferences had already been rescheduled or canceled for the rest of the year. The Texas Medical Association, the state’s largest medical group, has called on the party to follow suit and withdrew as a convention advertiser.

“With or without masks, an indoor gathering of thousands of people from all around the state in a city with tens of thousands of active COVID-19 cases poses a significant health risk to conventiongoers, convention workers, health care workers, and the residents of Houston,” Dr. Diana Fite, TMA’s president, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, various other indoor conventions across the state have recently been canceled or moved online. The Texas High School Coaches Association announced Monday it is canceling its in-person, indoor convention scheduled for July 19 to 21 in San Antonio. The THSCA conference was expected to draw 5,000 attendees who would not have been required to wear face masks, according to the association’s rules.

“It was a tough call to make but in our efforts to support the preventative protocols set forth by our Texas school administrators, the UIL [University Interscholastic League] Executive Staff and governing authorities at both state and local levels, we are choosing to prioritize health and safety first,” the THSCA wrote in a press release.

Visit San Antonio, one of the THSCA’s conference partners, commended the group’s decision as a difficult but necessary one.

“While we feel we had gone above and beyond to ensure a very safe conference, we are in uncharted territory that is requiring difficult decisions for everyone,” Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, said in a statement.

Last week, the Texas Girls Coaches Association also canceled its in-person convention scheduled for this Monday through Thursday in Arlington.

Both the THSCA and TGCA are continuing to hold virtual conventions. The THSCA coaching school will take place on the original dates, while the TGCA online clinic will start July 15 and be available through Sept. 1.


Local
Longview fireworks calls up from 2019

From Staff Reports

The number of calls the Longview Police Department received about fireworks on the Fourth of July was about 67% higher than the number received in 2019.

It’s illegal to set off fireworks inside Longview city limits. Longview police spokesman Brandon Thornton said Monday that the department received 104 calls about fireworks on Saturday, up from 62 in 2019. The department also received 17 shots-fired calls, compared with eight the previous year.

Those calls could have been from people mistaking fireworks for gunshots, he said.

In many cases, officers could not locate the fireworks someone had complained about, but for nearly 30 of the calls, officers were able to stop and talk to people involved. Separately, two warnings were issued, Thornton said.

The Longview Fire Department also assists in responding to calls about fireworks. Assistant Fire Chief Steven Green reported nothing out of the ordinary on Saturday.