Locals worried about lack of state guidance on new unemployment extension

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – $108 a week might not sound like much but that’s what Uber driver and single father Randy Baker has been getting by on recently.

The extension of federal unemployment benefits that kept Baker afloat expired last weekend and he received his last payment this week — until the new COVID stimulus bill kicks in. And therein lies the problem, Baker said.

“We’re not getting any guidance and any information on what we’re supposed to do and here we are on Friday the first,” Baker said. “Sunday is when everybody starts to recertify.”

The bottom fell out of Randy Baker’s Uber business March 12.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDOL) has been mum on when it will implement the newly passed extension and $300 weekly top up from the federal government.

All Baker and thousands in his situation are getting is a notice that TDOL is awaiting guidance from the feds.

They know that at some point they’ll be receiving payments, but one of Baker’s worst fears is that he won’t be able to do his weekly recertification Sunday and he’ll have to restart the whole process.

“If you don’t recertify on Sunday then we’re afraid we’re going to get kicked out of the system and we’re going to have to go back through the whole process.”

Baker said his initial benefits process went quite smoothly after the bottom dropped out of the ride-hailing market on a day he’ll always remember — March 12, a Thursday.

But he knows a number of people who weren’t so fortunate.

Part of a long comment thread on TDOL’s Facebook page.

“Unfortunately it took a lot of people three, four, five, six months to get their checks started,” he said. “And you know, now everyone’s needing food, shelter, and we’re just really anxious and really disappointed that we’re not getting any guidance.”

And many of those Tennesseans are looking at a national website, unemploymentpua.com and wondering why. As of Friday afternoon Tennessee was one of nine states still in the “not ready” phase of implementing the new extension.

Most were in the second, “pre-implementation” phase, and a handful were in the implementation phase. About half showed dates that residents could expect the first payment of an 11-week extension.

Baker said he realizes some people might wonder why he hasn’t taken a job at a grocery store or something. A one-time manager of multiple convenience stores who’s worked his whole adult life, Baker has an answer.

“Uber’s been great for me in terms of taking care of my sons,” he said, noting the flexible hours and good earnings. He was making up to $700 a week working an average of four hours a day — all while raising a 14-year-old and completing a K-8 teaching degree that he’s set to finish in a semester.

The last guidance from TDOL left people in limbo and worrying they may have to completely reapply for unemployment — thus risking a long delay in receiving benefits.

So Baker had elected to wait it out, obviously hoping he’d be back to driving soon. After the initial $600 extra benefit expired and then a $300 extension ended in early fall, he scraped by on the net $108 a week that gig workers like him qualified for.

He was allowed to make up to $50 a week on top of that, but he said the current Uber market is such that it’s almost impossible to make that much.

“I’ve worked my whole life,” he said. “No one’s wanting you to support us. We would rather be out working as far as unemployed people. I loved my job, I needed my job and I will go back just as soon as I can.

“But right now this is our means to support ourselves and to say, ‘well in three weeks you’ll get a lump sum check,’ well that’s not helping now.”

News Channel 11 emailed TDOL Thursday requesting clarification after an initial conversation with Baker and received an out of office autoreply.

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