‘In progress’ not comforting message for those experiencing unemployment SNAFUs

Local Coronavirus Coverage

(WJHL) – Valerie Fortner has been waiting on her unemployment claim to resolve for about eight weeks. The Greeneville mom’s mortgage payment is due, her HVAC unit’s out and she’s been borrowing from her mother and mother-in-law to make ends meet.

Valerie Fortner

“It’s been really tough with getting no paycheck for about eight weeks now. I’ve been applying and reapplying and not getting anywhere,” said Fortner, who returned to work two weeks ago and is expecting her first regular paycheck soon.

Not far away in Johnson City, Rachael Peterson is in a similar situation. Both women hope their situations will be resolved soon — though Peterson is beginning to wonder about hers — but they say “soon” doesn’t help much when enduring weeks without income.

“It’s really tight,” Peterson, a newlywed whose husband was also laid off, said Monday.

Peterson worked one day in her physical therapy assistant job, from which she’d been furloughed. She made enough that late April day to disqualify her for unemployment that week.

Peterson took that $170 or so even though it also meant that along with state benefits she’d forego the $600 weekly unemployment assistance. “I like to work,” Peterson said.

What she didn’t reckon on was a glitch in which Tennessee’s unemployment software told her she’d have to file a whole new claim. That’s not accurate, but it’s what the computer determined and Peterson’s been stuck in a Catch-22 for several weeks now.

Rachael Peterson

“The issue is I can’t get past the week ending May 2,” Peterson said. “I try every Sunday to go in and do what I’m supposed to do but I can’t get past it.”

The system should have just denied her payment for that week, kept her claim intact and let her recertify the following weeks. Peterson learned that when she hit a different extension after countless failed attempts to reach a live operator to discuss her issue.

“The lady that we did actually talk to said do not file a new claim.”

Falling through the cracks – for now

So Peterson waits, calling the state’s numbers and usually having the phone tell her the system is overloaded and hanging up.

That’s a familiar refrain for Fortner as well. In her case, her hours began to be cut some in early March and she decided to file a claim for partial unemployment.

“I thought maybe I could just get a little bit of help while I was trying to make it from day to day, because I live from paycheck to paycheck,” Fortner said.

Instead, the system froze up and that kept some of her previous work history from being entered in her claim. The result? A ruling of “monetarily ineligible.”

Fortner submitted a wage protest — a standard move in such situations — and was waiting on what is normally a 21-day period for a result. In the meantime, her employer conducted a large furlough and submitted claims for all its furloughed employees, including her.

“I thought, ‘oh no,’ Fortner said. ‘I’ve put that wage protest in and I wonder since it says monetarily ineligible will my previous file mess up my new file.’”

Valerie Fortner’s unemployment limbo summed up in one screen capture.

That’s precisely what happened. Fortner has dialed the phone until her fingers hurt, and she’s reached a live person a couple of times. The latest news is that her situation is in process and she is expecting a hefty benefit once it all gets resolved.

“The ones that I have talked to have said they really wished that they could help me more, but because of the way the system works and it’s overloaded they keep trying to remind me that it’s gonna happen, it’s just taking a really long time,” Fortner said.

Fortner has endured two monthly billing cycles, with the help from her mom and mother-in-law keeping her from falling too far behind.

“That’s hard for me, I’m really independent, I don’t like doing that, but sometimes you have to.”

One thing relatives haven’t been able to help her with is that on the fritz HVAC unit. The cold weather into May she combated with one space heater. Not she’s running fans and keeping windows open to cope with the heat.

She said 9-year-old Avery is generally handling things like a trooper.

“He’s pretty mature for his age and he’s been staying busy playing with friends who live on our street,” Fortner said. “He’s like, ‘when are we gonna get our heat back,’ and I say, ‘well, whenever we gat that unemployment, that’s when we’re going to get it fixed.”

Familiar refrain from the state

Chris Cannon, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s spokesperson, said Monday the department has added several additional features since WJHL’s last query regarding folks who are falling through the cracks.

The new and pending features, he said, include:

  • Continued additions of live call agents. The state had 20 when the crisis began and has 400 today.
  • The pending addition of “Peyton,” an enhanced virtual chat agent. The bot is expected to be able to handle many questions, freeing up experienced agents to help people like Peterson and Fortner get to an employee who can resolve their situations.
  • The ability of claimants to leave voicemail should be available soon so they can leave critical information about their claim and someone can explore their issues.

With that said, Cannon acknowledged the department is working through a “small percentage” of older claims such as Peterson’s and Fortner’s.

“While it is a small percentage, we know if a claimant is part of that group, the number of claims currently processing is irrelevant to them,” Cannon said in a statement Monday. “This weighs heavily on each member of the team working to process these claims as quickly as possible.”

The number of new unemployment claims in Tennessee has remained stubbornly high.

Cannon said the department knows it has much progress left to make, and that people such as Fortner and Peterson “are depending on these benefits to make ends meet during this crisis.”

Cannon also referenced — as he did in a May 14 call — the department’s efforts to use technology to “group common issues together, and then solve them as a group, so a large numbers of claims can process at one time.”

In Greeneville, Fortner is counting on the latest thing she heard from the department. “Two weeks ago they called me out of the blue and said that they were still working on it, so I was really surprised,” she said. “They said it was taking a long time, they made sure my information was correct.

“They’ve put the two files together — it’s just taking forever.”

Peterson, whose employer is slowly bringing her and co-workers back on as patients return, is beginning to wonder whether she’ll ever see the approximately $2,200 she should receive for those three weeks in May.

“I’m not holding my breath,” she said. “I’m not sure anybody will ever get back to me, I’m not sure I’ll ever get past the week ending May second. I try every Sunday to go in and do what I’m supposed to do and I can’t get past it.”

Continuing coverage of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

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