By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development administers unemployment insurance here. It might as well be on Mars. Tens of thousands have been denied claims or had them lost in limbo for months. Some unemployed workers spend hours on the phone every day trying to get their claims processed but wind up getting nowhere.

“We are all in the same boat,” said Kevin Pritchett, a substitute teacher in Shelby County. He filed for unemployment but was denied. He filed a protest March 22. “I’m going to lose my apartment…done lost my car insurance and I’m not alone,” he said.  

“There has been a lack of preparation on the state’s part to anticipate the need that was coming.  In March we knew this was coming,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie (D, Nashville). “We are in May and we’re still not prepared. We still don’t have the manpower to gets these claims processed,” said Dixie.

“I have always worked. I never ever expected to even need to file for unemployment. In fact my family is so against the idea of getting the government’s money it was something I never thought I would have to do, “said Maria X, who declined to give her last name.

Maria has a premature baby at home but can ‘t afford diapers. She goes to the food pantry, worries about her prescriptions and worries that she will lose her car and be unable to take her baby to the doctor. 

“My husband is a disabled veteran and I worry about getting him to and from his appointments. We don’t even have any damned gas money,” she said.

Maria applied for the $1200 COVID economic impact payment, sent bank statements and paystubs to the Department of Labor. She got denied. She ran out of formula, her breasts are not producing, and she is desperate. 

“I even considered taking my baby to fire station because I can’t afford it right now. I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Maria and dozens of others told their horror stories last week at a zoom Unemployment Nightmares Town Hall. House Democrats hosted the meeting. They invited Commissioner Jeff McCord and Governor Bill Lee. Neither joined the on line meeting.

“They are responsible for this and it’s a huge mess. They have to get it fixed because lives actually depend on it,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson (D, Knoxville).

Unemployment benefits come from taxes paid by workers and their employers. It’s a federal program administered by states. Tennessee has one of the cheapest payouts that max out at $275 per week.

But Congress passed the CARES ACT in March boosting benefits by $600 per week through July 31 and extending benefits by 13 weeks up to 39 weeks. The CARES Act also allows gig works and the self-employed to collect benefits including cash payments of $1,200. Tennessee has millions of federal dollars but it is not disbursing them like Congress intended. Whether that’s through incompetence or design or both, is unclear.

“I’m just not so sure that it’s not intentional in order to make people give up on the process, “ said Rep Antonio Parkinson (D, Memphis).

When a person loses their job they have to prove they didn’t just quit. They have to have earned at least $780 in the two highest-paid quarters in the base period (year) and earned $900 in three quarters outside the highest quarter. 

Those requirements are there to prevent fraud. The pandemic put millions out of work and most states relaxed their requirements just to get money into peoples’ pockets. Normally it takes about 21 days to file a claim and wait a couple weeks before benefits begin. Unemployed Tennesseans have waited months.

Claims agents are overwhelmed and the Department has not simplified the process to handle the flood of new claims more efficiently. At 14.7 percent the unemployment rate in Tennessee is the highest on record. Some 50,000 people have applied unsuccessfully for unemployment benefits. 

“It’s ridiculous that procedures weren’t changed to get everything approved since this is not a normal time but they are treating it as if it was. This is unacceptable,” said Kim Knight. Knight said waiting on a handful of adjudicators to clear the backlog of claims is making things worse.

Amy Campbell filed March 27 with her employer’s help.  She was well prepared and it took half an hour. “Within 48 hours I got an email that I was monetarily ineligible,” Campbell said. She was eligible and could prove it.

She tried again. This time she applied over the phone with her employer on the call. She submitted 2 full years of paystubs by quarter, bank statements, and her employer’s letterhead stating how much she had made.

“Weeks went by and I heard nothing. I called the unemployment office over 200 times. They always said ‘we’ll submit a ticket’. Then I called Gov. Lee’s office and his voicemail recording tells you that if he gets into it, it will delay things several weeks,” Campbell said.

Lee said there was only a five-minute wait to reach the unemployment office. Campbell considers that misstatement a slap in the face. “Bill Lee did not join us on this call. He has let us down so bad,” she said.

Campbell said she got a call that morning from a woman who said she would accelerate her claim. “That’s the 4th or 5th time somebody told me that,” she said.

Jeff McCord

Commissioner Jeff McCord says there is a backlog of claims from March but they are being adjudicated more quickly now because he has hired 25 more claims agents.  

The Tennessean reported that during the week of May 16, the department paid 319,574 claims totaling about $359 million. Since mid-March, 314,487 people have continued to file weekly certifications out of the 532,580 that filed initial claims. That could mean about 215,000 people have given up trying to collect on their claims that the state has fumbled or improperly denied.

The Tribune has asked to meet with Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord. If he accepts, we will bring you that interview in an upcoming edition.