Since March Unemployment Office Failed to Meet Federal Standard

Governor Bill Lee speaking in front of Nashville General Hospital at the unveiling of two emergency COVID-19 wards on June 5.

NASHVILLE, TN – Latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show Tennessee failed to meet the federal payment standard in March, April, and May.

“We have consistently exceeded the requirement of the federal government on the days it takes to pay a claim. The requirement is 87% of claims being paid within 21 days or less and we have exceeded that throughout the pandemic,” Lee told reporters on June 5.

That could be true if you don’t count the thousands of unemployed workers who tried to apply for unemployment but were unsuccessful or denied—even though many of them have valid claims.

We asked the Governor’s office and Department of Labor for a comment. Department spokesperson Chris Cannon said the vendor, GeoGraphic Solutions, designed a program within Jobs4TN.gov that “incorporates new rules regarding the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program”. From the user’s POV, the Jobs4TN.gov is a failed computer program that should be abandoned.

Latest figures show the Tennessee Department of Labor paid 74% of claims in May. In April, the department paid 70.6%; in March it paid just 14.7% of claims.  June figures are not available yet.

As the Tribune has reported, tens of thousands of unemployed workers in Tennessee have been unable to file unemployment claims because the department website makes it either very difficult or downright impossible to file a claim without being denied or kicked out of the system and into computer limbo. You have to file an appeal to get “reconsidered”.  Applicants say that is fraught with problems, too.

Neither the Department of Labor nor the Governor have apologized to the thousands of unemployed workers who have been denied benefits they are owed.

At best, government officials say they are doing the best they can.  At worst, they insist the system is working. “There are no indications of systematic errors in the Department’s decisions regarding the denial of unemployment benefits. Any worker or employer who feels the Department’s decision was made in error has the right to appeal that decision,” Cannon said.

The only problem with that “explanation” is that it puts the onus on the worker for failing to navigate a system that denied benefits in the first place. (See https://tntribune.com/thousands-still-arent-collecting-unemployment/)

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (PEUC) and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) use federal funds Congress included in the Cares Act. The PEUC extends benefits to unemployed workers whose regular benefits have expired. The PUA program is for gig workers.

Both have fewer qualifying requirements than filing a regular unemployment claim. That was the point: get money into the hands of unemployed workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

Some states have relaxed the rules on regular unemployment claims for the same reason. For example, it makes no sense to enforce the requirement to actively seek work while someone is under a stay at home order or in quarantine. Tennessee is not one of the states that make applying for unemployment easier. It is making it harder.

Elected officials have been hearing about that from their constituents.

Cannon said the Labor Department has received inquiries regarding constituent unemployment claims from each of the 132 members of the Tennessee General Assembly, along with nine U.S. Congressman, and Tennessee’s two U.S. Senators.