GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Lori Baskette figured she’d made a simple mistake or two on her unemployment application. With Tennessee’s system overloaded, it had cost her weeks without a resolution of her case.
“I just wanted a person to talk to or email with – just any communication,” said Baskette, who first applied for benefits in mid-March after shutting down her Rogersville restaurant.
When she contacted News Channel 11 Wednesday morning, Baskette’s daily calls to the Department of Labor (DOL) had been unsuccessful. “The 615 number that I had I leave a message at least once a day if not twice a day,” Baskette said.
Other phone numbers in the DOL list didn’t even allow her to leave a message. “It says due to high call volume they can’t put you in line or anything, so it just hangs up,” she said.
Baskette is among many Tennesseans with claims that aren’t normal. Self-employed people like her are potentially eligible for unemployment for the first time ever. So are people who’ve been offered a job but not been able to start it yet due to COVID-19 — another category she fits into, having also accepted a U.S. Census Bureau job in mid-February.
Baskette thought she had transitioned her claim to the census job in mid-April. She still wasn’t getting any feedback except “pending,” so she called a friend who had also accepted a census job.
“We had worked together on the census before,” Baskette said. “I was having so much problem that I called her and asked her if she had applied.”
Her friend had not, but did at Baskette’s urging even though she hadn’t had a regular job that paid into unemployment for some years. She started receiving benefits the next week and had received four weekly payments by Thursday — with Baskette still in limbo.
“I asked her for half of it but it didn’t work out,” Baskette said jokingly during a noon phone call.
One situation fixed — many more unresolved
WJHL had contacted Baskette’s state representative, David Hawk (R-Greeneville) Wednesday afternoon and he had gotten her story. WJHL also gave DOL’s Chris Cannon information on her situation Thursday morning.
By 1:30 p.m., Baskette had heard from an agent, exchanged emails and been approved, with back pay to March 21. The approved claim was not for her census job, but for her initial claim related to the restaurant.
Baskette had needed to send in her 1099, and she’d also filed in the past with a different last name. Before her initial claim could transfer to the federal pandemic unemployment assistance, which Congress approved after her initial claim, she had filed for the census job.
When she filed the second claim, Cannon said, that caused an error and stopped the first claim. He said many claimants — there have been more than 500,000 since mid-March — are filing for the first time ever, and the department is dealing with three new federal programs.
“This is a totally new system for them, we have three new federal programs that we’re trying to implement and run, so there’s a lot of moving parts right now and it can be very confusing for everyone involved,” Cannon said.
That confusion is creating many, many claims that need a little human touch. It’s much more difficult to get a human on the other end of the line, though.
“I keep a notebook with five names per page of people with unemployment issues,” Rep. Hawk said. “It’s 50 pages long right now.”
Cannon said DOL just hired 35 more phone agents. First-time claims are dropping and continuing claims appear to have plateaued, so he’s hopeful the backlog will begin to ebb.
“One little thing can throw a claim off, and somebody has to get in there and work that claim,” he said. “That’s the issue. A human being has to touch that claim and there are a lot of claims in there, so we’re just working as hard as we can to … work those claims because we know folks need those benefits.”
Baskette certainly did.
“I kind of feel like I’ve been put in the bottom of somebody’s desk drawer somewhere for a couple months and they’ll get to me when they get to it, but yeah, it’s been very frustrating,” she said in the initial call.
“The stimulus money helps, but for a lot of people that’s just a house payment.”
After her case was resolved, Baskette said she felt as though a big weight had been lifted from her. She also said she appreciated the DOL workers, but added that she worries about other folks in similar situations to hers.
“I knew I could straighten it out if I could just get somebody on the phone,” Baskette said. “They had to create a whole new system (for self-employed claimants), which is why it’s taken so long.
“I get it, but there’s some people that just can’t survive out there with no money coming in, you know?”
Cannon said DOL is using technology to find commonalities among problematic claims in hopes of fixing large numbers. He said getting more claims moved from pending status should open more phone lines, just as fewer people are filing new claims and more agents are available.
“That’ll leave more capacity for those who have really complicated claims that we actually have to get into and work and investigate, to get them some more capacity to get into the phone centers and talk to an agent,” he said.
For her part, Baskette was in a more jovial mood later Thursday, joking about her pending payment and the continued lockdown.
“And I can’t even go anywhere on vacation,” she said, laughing. “No, I’m kidding. It’ll be paying bills is what it’ll be doing.”