Tjuana Kinard is the sole supporter of her extended family. She tried for weeks to collect on her unemployment claim. “It’s just not fair, man. I feel like Governor Lee failed us,” she said.

NASHVILLE, TN – Governor Bill Lee is proud of the way the Tennessee Department of Labor responded to the pandemic. It used to handle about 2500 unemployment claims a month; now it pays 320,000 weekly claims.

“Tennessee was one of the first ten states in the country to engage in the federal unemployment program, the pandemic unemployment insurance. We engaged very early on,” Lee said.

Via email, Department of Labor spokesperson Chris Cannon said Tennessee began paying Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation on April 14. It started paying gig workers on April 22.

“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 said.

But filing a claim doesn’t mean it will be paid. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee paid only 14.7% of claims in March. According to Tennessee’s Department of Labor, 133,588 new claims were filed in the last two weeks of March. That means 113,951 of those claims were not paid for those two weeks. In April the department paid 70.6% of claims. May figures are not available yet.

“Our efforts have gone out 24-7 to make sure we provide unemployment to the greatest degree with the best speed possible to the people in TN,” Lee said.

Not for one minute does Tjuana Kinard believe that. In late May, she was on her eighth week of certification but had yet to be paid. She is a single mother and caretaker of her grandmother, children, and a disabled brother.  She was weeping when she talked to the Tribune on May 24.

“I’ve been on the chat line every day for about two weeks now,” she said, wiping the tears away from her eyes with a handkerchief. She was 1500th in the queue one day and waited until she was number 30. Then the line went dead. Kinard was living a nightmare that went on every day for weeks.

“I sat on the chat line from 8 o’clock one morning until 8 at night, just to get hung up on,” she said.

The best possible speed, as Lee put it, is interminably slow for thousands of unemployed who have been waiting weeks or months to get their claims processed and paid. There are many who were denied but have yet to have their appeals resolved.

The labor department says that between March 15 and May 11, 500,000 people filed for unemployment. Of those, 16,767 were denied; 10,001 were appealed. We asked the department how many of those appeals resulted in claims being paid. Cannon didn’t say but he did said there were approximately 27,000 claims still pending a decision as of June 9. “That includes claims just filed the week before and claims still within the 21 day timeliness period,” he said.

The number of people who tried to appeal but couldn’t is unknown.

“The entire system is broke,” said Bill Dycus. He is President of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and sits on the Labor Department advisory council. “We’re there to tell them about problems that we see,” he said.

He doesn’t fault Commissioner Jeff McCord or Assistant Commissioner Rusty Felts. “They’re getting the brunt of the criticism but they’ve been going to a sword fight with a pocket knife,” Dycus said.

He faults successive Republican administrations for dismantling the old system, and in the name of efficiency and economy, shutting down local unemployment offices all over the state. There have not been stand-alone unemployment offices in Tennessee for more than a decade.

“When I was unemployed in the 70s there was always an unemployment office in every town — that’s where we’d take our cards or you could mail them back in,” he said.  Dycus thinks taking the person-to-person contact out of the claims process was pennywise and pound-foolish.

“If I was going to put in a claim I could go to Manchester and if there was a problem with my claim, I could see somebody face to face. You can even do that with Social Security offices in most places,” he said.

The labor department went to a computer-based system in May 2016. It requires claims to be made by logging into the department website or calling one of the department’s three call centers. For claimants one method is just as bad as the other. Frequently, neither yields the desired result—getting a claim approved or certified, and then paid.

Rep Mike Stewart says his office has intervened on behalf of 300 people to accelerate their claims. He said about 200 of those have been resolved. “I think they cleared a lot of cases at first but now things have slowed down,” he said. Other legislators have advocated for their constituents also. The department has not responded to a request for the number of denied claims or problem claims it has reviewed and resolved.

“It’s a multitude of things that’s going on,” Dycus said. He said the department has been sorely depleted of manpower. The main office in Metro Center is mostly vacant because of the pandemic but even before that the place was a tomb of empty cubicles.

The department added 400 claims agents recently. So while more phone calls are being answered, those newbies can’t do much if there is any problem except file a ticket for a few dozen claims troubleshooters to deal with. They don’t answer the phone. From the claimant’s point of view, you wait all day on the phone to get a person who can’t help you.

“The entire system is broke,” said Billy Dycus. He is President of the Tennessee AFL-CIO and a member of the labor department’s Advisory Council.

“They spent a lot of money on computer programs to make it supposedly easier for people to file claims and they’ve had a couple people in there to try and make the system work better but it’s not working, so people are kind of left out there on the other side of that,” Dycus said.

The department pays GeoGraphic Solutions, Inc. $3.5 million/yr. to manage the site.

Dycus spoke with the Tribune last week. We had to call him back three times before he could talk. He was busy fielding phone calls and answering emails from people seeking assistance with their claims. Since April 1, he’s compiled a folder of about fifty people who’ve had problems with the claims process.

“I’m getting emails from people I don’t even know who are not even in the labor movement. It should not be that I get on the computer and it asks me a hundred questions just to file a claim and then, if it kicks you out, it locks you out. Yet these are the things I’m hearing,” Dycus said.

He said the department is not getting enough input from “John Q. Public”.

“They’ve got to take input from working people on how to make it work for people who are trying to file, and quit allowing computer people and people who don’t file claims, set up a system to file claims,” he said.

Dycus doesn’t think technology will ever work as good as the way things used to be. “Commissioner McCord is doing the best he can but this falls on the governor,” Dycus said.