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Department of Labor takes steps to catch up as Tennesseans still wait on unemployment claims

The Tennessee state flag flies.

(The Center Square) – More than a quarter of a million Tennesseans have open unemployment claims with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

While some unemployed claimants have waited more than nine weeks to receive a first benefit payment, the department said it is continuing to adapt to meet the unprecedented demand.

“Over a three-week time period, unemployment claims increased 4,000 percent,” Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord told The Center Square.

The week after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Tennessee, 2,702 unemployed workers filed claims with the department. Three weeks later, 116,141 new claims were filed. Since March 15, the department has processed 691,898 claims.

“That kind of not just magnitude, but suddenness, obviously caused strain on systems and on staffing,” McCord said.

In response to the demand, the department underwent a significant computer system upgrade. The department also relocated employees of its American Job Centers locations to process unemployment claims because they already were familiar with acronyms and the approval process, and it required less training than hiring entirely new staff. In total, 400 new staff members were added to the department in a matter of weeks to serve in customer service and claim processing.

“That sounds great, but the issue really wasn’t, and isn’t still, just a number-of-people issue. It’s an expertise issue,” McCord said. “At the same time we were bringing these folks on, we needed to train them.”

Making decisions on claims requires training and experience. That kind of work, McCord said, is not possible to automate or contract. The department will continue to train new claim agents and add new staff throughout July.

As the department adapted to record demand and new staffing, it also worked to implement federal unemployment programs passed by Congress, including the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the federal Extended Benefit program.

“We were required by the CARES Act to build three new systems for unemployment insurance that didn’t exist before,” McCord said. “That’s not an easy thing to do in normal times, but when you’re struggling with system issues and staffing issues, it certainly ramped up our challenge.”

Meanwhile, legislative offices continue to receive requests from constituents for assistance with their unemployment claims, some of whom have been waiting since April for a payment.

“They’re still having virtually no luck calling into the department and actually reaching someone,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, told The Center Square, noting that when her constituents call the department and do reach someone, that person is usually not someone who is able to review their claim.

“We are in the danger zone now for people really losing their livelihoods,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do better. Folks are really struggling. With the federal portion about to end if the U.S. Senate does not do something, I don’t know how people are going to survive.”

Johnson said she has spoken to constituents who have lost their apartments waiting for an unemployment payment.

McCord and Johnson agree change is likely for Tennessee’s unemployment system.

“I would imagine, after all this, we’re going to look at how the unemployment system works in totality,” McCord said. “But that is certainly a question for the Legislature.”

When the Legislature returns for an anticipated special session, Johnson said it’s an issue that should be taken up, along with Medicaid expansion. In the meantime, she encourages anyone who needs assistance with unemployment claims to contact their state representative.

“It’s not a cure all, but we can at least help them in the right direction,” Johnson said.

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