JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Rachael Peterson is getting back to work as a physical therapy assistant, but the hours are slow coming. That’s why five weeks and counting waiting on a glitch in her unemployment payments was starting to put a hurting on the household budget.
“It’s hard not being able to go back to work, and it’s even harder to not be able to claim unemployment benefits for things that are completely out of your control,” the recently married Peterson said Thursday.
“I know it’s difficult for us and I know it’s been difficult for everybody else who’s been trying and has run into problems.”
By midday Thursday, Peterson had heard from a state employee, who had walked through her case. Peterson had worked one day late in April and the pay had rendered her ineligible for that week.
The system told her she had to reapply, but it wouldn’t allow her to proceed. She waited, emailed, called, and checked the system multiple times daily for weeks.
Like others WJHL has spoken with, Peterson simply couldn’t get around her problem, and she couldn’t reach a state staffer who could help her.
Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s (TDL) Chris Cannon requested information when told about Peterson’s case Thursday morning. The resolution marked the second time WJHL has been asked to provide information and a resident’s case has been resolved.
Peterson said it actually left her with mixed emotions. “It’s kind of hard to know what to feel,” she said.
“There’s part of it that’s very rewarding because it’s like, ‘finally, now I can pay bills that need to be paid, I can go to the doctor I can do all these things that need to be done, but at the same time it also makes me kind of almost guilty because I know other people are struggling and haven’t gotten their checks yet.”
Peterson’s advice to others in the situation? Persevere and have hope.
“I think after talking on the phone with the girl that works from the state, I think that they really want to help people. I don’t think that they’re just pushing people away. I think that they’re overloaded and so I do have more confidence that people will get the help that they need and that they’ll get back pay for all the weeks that they missed.”
TDL’s Cannon said the state is making progress. He said there had been 16,000 denied claims at one point, though not all of those would eventually be approved.
Another issue is claims that simply say pending but don’t get resolved. TDL has added staff, increased its server capacity, and recently added a chatbot, “Peyton,” that can handle quite a few basic questions.
“If they get to the end and they still don’t have the answer they need then Peyton can actually transfer that during business hours to a live chat agent,” Cannon said.
He also said the system now accepts voicemails, and that a team of about 40 people is working those voicemails and returning calls. Cannon said the system was not supposed to hang up on people anymore when the hold queue is full, but rather put them to the voicemail.
Another feature that has helped cull the backlog is the use of “Zendesk,” which logs all emails and calls. More than 600,000 new claims have now been filed since mid-March, and the state has consistently been paying out benefits to more than 300,000 per week for the past six weeks or so.
“We can go through those and look for common complaints, and pool those together if there’s a systematic issue there and then clear thousands of claims at one time that may have just been a simple question that everyone answered wrong.
“We’ve cleared out tens of thousands of claims that way.”
Cannon said the progress is encouraging but that TDL staff know the pain is real for people still in limbo.
“It’s hard to believe we’re just about three months into this, and we know we’ve made a lot of progress but we know there’s still some progress to make.”
Cannon said the department is working problem claims from the oldest to the newest “to get those determinations made so we can find out if these folks are eligible for unemployment and if they are to start those payments. They really need to make end meets right now.”
Peterson said she couldn’t agree more.
“It is hard in the moment, when you’re trying to make ends meet.”