Overwhelmed system still frustrating newly unemployed workers – some remain unpaid

Local

(WJHL) – An overwhelmed, antiquated state unemployment system has added insult to the injury the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on countless newly unemployed Tennesseans like Candice Yates, Daniel Jenkins, and Justine Faataui.

It’s the first time ever filing for each of the three. Each hopes it will be the last. While each has had different twists in their frustrations navigating the process, all have experienced delayed payments.

Jenkins and Faataui both have waited for sure confirmation they’d get paid, while enduring uncertainty about whether they’d actually receive benefits. Faataui got her situation resolved Thursday, with good news, after help from State Senator Rusty Crowe. Jenkins, who quit his job as a certified nursing assistant after his 11-year-old son had to stay home from school, finished the day the way he started it — with his unemployment claims tracker saying his claim was “being reviewed,” just as it has for a month.

Yates, whom Faataui worked with at a big box retail store until it temporarily closed March 18, was the one who mentioned Faataui when she petitioned Crowe for help Tuesday. Crowe also facilitated a call from the Tennessee Department of Labor to Yates, but that call on Wednesday yielded some devastating news.

Candice Yates

“A few weeks ago I’d actually reached a state worker (from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, or DOL) on the phone,” Yates said. “I’d started a temporary job at Food City and I wanted to know what specifically did I need to stay under in pay to get the $275 (allowed state benefit) plus the $600 (federal pandemic assistance).”

That worker, one of hundreds from other DOL divisions quickly trained and pressed into unemployment-related duties, told Yates that even if she earned more than $275 in a week and was ineligible for the state benefit, she’d still receive the federal portion.

So to keep money coming in and stay busy, Yates threw herself into her new role at Food City. The weeks of March 30, April 6 and April 13 she earned more than $275 – barely – and far less than she had in her regular job.

Co-workers that weren’t earning enough to disqualify them for the weekly state benefit were also seeing a box in their weekly reports showing they’d qualified for the federal portion. Yates was not.

“At that point the Food City thing was not stretching as far as I needed and bills were coming,” Yates said.

Concerned, the week of April 6 she tried calling the department, which spokesman Chris Cannon said Thursday has increased its call center staff seven-fold, to 350, while calls have shot up 50-fold, to 100,000 a day. Yates wasn’t among the lucky few who got through.

“I tried the local number, the 844 number, every number under the sun,” Yates said. “The recording would say due to the high call volume we are not able to place you on a hold and it would just hang up on you. You couldn’t leave a voicemail. You couldn’t get anybody.”

With the uncertainty still hanging over her Tuesday, Yates called on a friend, who connected her with Crowe’s office.

“I just didn’t know how to get in touch with someone and I needed an answer on what did I need to do, did I need to quickly cut my hours and hope for the best or what?” Yates said.

The senator emailed her back quickly and said he’d expedite her situation to the governor’s office. Yates had thought to mention Faataui and another co-worker in her email.

A bad tradeoff

Wednesday morning Yates was working when a woman from DOL called. Yates asked if she would call back after she finished her shift and the woman did.

“She answered my questions about why I was not showing the stimulus amount, anything like that. She just answered every single question that I had.”

One of those questions was about the federal pandemic unemployment compensation.

“I learned that if in fact I go over the $275 unemployment amount (in a week) that actually does disqualify me from the furlough $600,” Yates said. “That was the point that the breakdown I had been not wanting to have happened on the phone with this lady.”

Yates, who said she cried much of the afternoon and evening Wednesday, had earned more than $275 but less than $300 each of the past three weeks. In essence, she’d traded the potential for $1,800 for something south of $75.

If she’d known, the fix would have been easy. She said Food City and her manager have been great to her, and he changed her schedule for the remainder of this week so she’d earn a bit less than $275.

That’s all it will take, DOL’s Cannon said.

“Perhaps there was a miscommunication there, and that is so unfortunate because you do need to earn at least one dollar in that (state) unemployment fund either through PUA (for self-employed) or through traditional unemployment to receive that extra FPUC $600 benefit,” Cannon said.

He added that the department is providing its staff — including the shock troops — with updated lists of frequently asked questions each day. “We really need everyone to be on the same page to provide that customer service that Tennesseans expect from us,” Cannon said.

Unanswered emails and calls

Of course, getting a correct answer from someone at DOL requires getting an answer period. And getting one’s application processed requires a well-functioning website.

Jenkins, of Bristol, hasn’t been able to get any answers from DOL since submitting his application for unemployment March 22. He resigned March 20 so his wife could continue her job as a pharmacy tech.

“The actual online application process went pretty smoothly,” Jenkins said. “A week after I applied I received the debit card, and it’s showing that I qualified for the weekly payment but it’s also saying that it’s being reviewed.”

Daniel, Nikki and Ian Jenkins with Zuko

So Jenkins, who’s never filed for unemployment before, is staying home with son Ian, a fifth-grader. He said his understanding is that the federal CARES Act allows unemployment compensation if someone has to quit a job to provide care for a child who’s having to stay home due to school closure.

“It’s been two and a half, three weeks of not hearing anything period and them not requiring any more information from me,” Jenkins said. He did talk to one person on the phone, but said “they were unable to go in and tell me anything about the claim.”

The Jenkins’s haven’t received their stimulus payment yet, either, even though they received a tax refund through direct deposit this year. “The budget right now is pretty tight,” Jenkins said. “My wife was able to go through DHS and apply for SNAP benefits, which we were approved for.”

Cannon’s description of Tennessee’s IT backbone for unemployment made it unsurprising that Jenkins didn’t learn anything the one time he reached someone by phone.

“It’s all one computer system,” Cannon said. “When it’s a capacity issue on the front end for customers, it’s the same capacity issue on the back end for staff who are trying to process those claims and for call agents using the system while they’re on the phone with someone.”

He said the state’s vendor is installing upgraded equipment, which could be online within a few days. “We’re really hoping that is going to change the experience for everyone who logs on to the site,” he said.

That would have helped Yates when she tried to recertify April 12 and learned that she’d been completely removed from the system. She logged into the app to recertify during her lunch break that day and got her first batch of bad news.

“It told me because of my monetary claim the prior week that I was not allowed to file a claim that week and I needed to reapply and start the process over again,” Yates said.

“I was trying not to break down the rest of my shift and I was worried that was it, I wasn’t going to get anything from here on out.”

Instead, she went home, spent five hours toting her laptop around the apartment while the page “would either shut down completely or it would freeze and you would have to open it again. It was just massively overwhelmed.”

Yates finally shut down her computer, set her alarm for 3 a.m. and rose in the wee hours, wrestling with the system for another three hours before completing her redo.

Faataui, Yates’s coworker, said after her initial application was completed, she continually failed to get into the app on Sundays to recertify. “The letter that I had received basically said if you were furloughed you should be fine with the certification,” Faataui said. “That’s what I was understanding.”

Several weeks passed, though, and Faataui never received a deposit. Then, thanks to Yates and Crowe, she got a call Thursday from a woman at DOL.

“She just basically went through my certifications and changed some things that may have caused a problem before that I had filled out wrong,” Faataui said. “This is the first time I have ever filled out unemployment, so I was lost from the beginning. She answered all my questions going through and she filled out my certification for me and talked me through how to do it when I do it on my own next week.”

Justine Faataui

By the time she received the call, Faataui had finally quit trying to call DOL after numerous unsuccessful attempts. “I had just chalked it up to, ‘I’m not going to get the money. I’m going to have to figure it out and it’s never going to come,’ because I couldn’t get any information from nobody.”

Faataui said she was “ecstatic” before the call ended. “Especially when I heard the number, because they are going to give back pay of course and I was afraid that I might not receive that, so I’m very thankful that I am.”

Faataui said she’s been getting by. “I’m just helping out my family as they help me out. I’m just trying to take care of the elders in my family and they’re kind of giving me some money to survive off of and a lot of people don’t have that opportunity, so another blessing.”

Cannon hoping for better days ahead

DOL is doing everything it can to counteract its overloaded systems and serve customers, Cannon said. That includes extending the makeup period for missed certifications from two weeks to five weeks.

That means if someone first entered the system March 22 and has somehow missed certifying each week through April 20 — and that would be possible with them not even knowing for sure — all those weeks can be captured still.

The expanded server capability should help break up backlogs, Cannon said. DOL is running its “daily payment register” that gets folks paid in the middle of the night now to free up system capacity during regular hours.

Self-employed workers, eligible for the first time due to federal stimulus measures, should start getting paid, and back paid, next week now that the new system required to serve them has been built.

“We paid some of those claims during a test phase this week,” Cannon said. “There’s every indication we will be able to pay the pandemic unemployment assistance to the self-employed Tennesseans — and there are tens of thousands of them who have been waiting weeks for those benefits –within a matter of days.”

The fact that many people aren’t getting served and remain in the dark “weighs heavily on us,” Cannon said. “We know each and every one of those calls is really important, because the person on the other end has a very important question that they’re depending on the answer to get the money needed to make ends meet during this crisis.

“We have made progress but we know there’s still a lot of progress to make.”

Lessons about life and grace

Despite the loss of more than $1,700, Yates said she’s not about to cast aspersions on anyone. The two times she’s gotten through to someone, “I’ve been treated with the utmost respect.

“Emotionally I haven’t held myself together on the phone with them because it’s very frustrating, and anyone I’ve spoken to has been understanding about that and they’ve been very kind.”

Yates said the experience has taught her about accepting the kindness of others. She said her supervisor in her temp job at Food City has always been supportive of the new workers who’ve been laid off through no fault of their own.

“Ever since this started he’s reiterated the fact that no one knows how to handle any of this, and they’re going to work with us as much as we need it.”

Her friends, church family and parents all have stepped forward in support during a time of frustration and discouragement, Yates said. “For someone like me who’s very independent it’s been hard to take help, but I’ve had multiple people reach out to me and ask me if I needed anything.

“I don’t think there’s anyone to that needs to be blamed in any of this. It’s just trying to navigate this has been hard and for someone who is typically the person that answers questions for my employees and I don’t have answers for myself right now, that’s been very hard.

“The one thing that’s made this a lot easier is that I’m not the only one going through this and there’s been a lot of understanding and graciousness from every single place, whether it’s bills or emotional support or anything. There’s been a lot of understanding from the community.”

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