Overwhelmed system trying to keep up with 35-fold increase in unemployment claims

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A two-week, 35-fold increase in unemployment claims has Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development struggling to serve claimants, a spokesman acknowledged Thursday.

More than 94,000 people filed claims in the week ending March 28, a record and a jump of 2.4 times from the previous week and 35 times from the March 14 total of 2,702.

Chart showing skyrocketing unemployment claims in Tennessee

“Never in the history of Tennessee’s unemployment system have we seen 95,000 people file for benefits in just one week,” Chris Cannon said. Cannon also provided updates on several changes at the state level, and shared the little that is known at this point about changes related to the federal CARES Act, including provision of benefits for self-employed people.

Key unemployment information

  • It’s best to file on line at jobs4tn.gov
  • If you must call, the number is 844-432-0969.
  • Always be sure to recertify each Sunday that you’re still unemployed or you may not be paid for that week.
  • States have 21 days to process a claim and approve or deny.
  • If you’re self-employed or a gig worker, complete the application even though it says you’re not eligible. Once federal guidance is received those claims will be processed.
  • The website is generally faster at night and before 10 a.m.

Newlywed Rachael Peterson was one of the people who filed in the March 22-28 week. The Johnson Citian was laid off from her job as a physical therapist’s assistant March 20, along with three of four colleagues from her location.

Rachael Peterson

She spent about 11 hours completing her application online — which Cannon said is the fastest way to be served — March 23.

“I understand things slow down when things get backed up, but at the same time it’s very frustrating when you just want to go ahead and get it done,” Peterson said. She began at the jobs4tn website on her Chromebook device, but it didn’t work so she switched to her then-fiance’s laptop.

“Even when I used his it was very slow. There was about a two minute wait between pages.” Peterson said she also got kicked out of the site about five times and had to start from scratch each time, contributing to the 11-hour ordeal.

Department trying to catch up with demand

Cannon said the department is scrambling to keep up the unprecedented demand and deploying extra resources. In addition to the regular 100 unemployment specialists, an additional 200 staff from other areas are being cross-trained to process claims, 100 of whom have already started.

The jobs4tn.gov website is “by far the most efficient and fastest way” to file, Cannon said. He acknowledged, though, that even that’s been slower than usual and advised applying outside the peak hours of mid-morning to 5 p.m.

Those who have to use the phone number, which is (844) 432-0969 are experiencing even longer waits. That line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays. A call to that number gets a recording urging callers to find a way to apply online after noting that the department “has been inundated with unemployment insurance claims” due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Two calls made with an attempt to get person on the line, at 12:30 and 4:15 p.m. said all operators were busy, while a third made a minute later played hold music for 30 minutes before telling the caller to try again later.

Chris Cannon

“We have literally tens of thousands of calls coming in to the department and we just ask for patience because it is just difficult to handle such a spike when it happens overnight,” Cannon said.

He said leadership at the department empathizes with the frustration and fear that people are experiencing. East Tennesseans, he said, are hard-working people and many have never dealt with the unemployment system before.

“The system is working, it may be slower than usual but it is working, we’ll get to you. We understand that you’re frustrated, we understanad that you’re nervous, you don’t know how you’re gonna pay your bills, it’s the first of the month and you know rent is due, electric is due. We understand that and we’re doing everything possible to get those benefits to the people who need them.”

What’s new since COVID-19 hit?

Federal changes that will cover self-employed and gig workers haven’t come with guidance since last week’s passage of the CARES Act, Cannon said. State officials are hoping for clarity soon about those changes, which include up to $600 in additional weekly benefits on top of Tennessee’s $275 weekly max.

The changes also include inclusion of self-employed folks. Everyone must fill out paperwork that shows work income over the past 18 months. Right now, the state’s website tells self-employed people they’re ineligible, but Cannon said they should continue in the application.

“It’s going to say that you’re monetarily ineligible because you haven’t had any records with an employer, but still file that claim,” Cannon said. “When we finally get that guidance from the federal government we’ll go back in pick up all those claims that were denied because of this and we’ll start processing those claims to get that pandemic unemployment assistance to these folks who are self employed and freelancers, who need this benefit just as much as anybody else.”

Changes at the state level came in an Executive Order from Gov. Bill Lee. They include the waiver of a week to wait on benefits once approved. Normally, that first week isn’t paid until the fourth week, resulting in a double payment at that point if a person remains unemployed.

The rules requiring weekly job search have been modified as well. Cannon said that can be done virtually “You don’t have to go out and meet with people and do job interviews to meet that requirement,” he said.

Peterson: Still waiting on approval

Rachael Peterson said she hadn’t gotten confirmation of approval by Thursday, 20 days after filing.

“The site had told me it would probably take about a week or so to get any kind of results back or any updated information, but it also kind of listed at the top that due to high demand that it could take a little bit longer,” she said.

So on her wedding day, Sunday, she completed her first weekly certification of continued unemployment — an important requirement according to Cannon. It took about five or 10 minutes, she said.

Despite the slowdowns, Cannon said Tennessee’s system is working, albeit slowly and frustratingly for all involved.

“123,000 people got through (over two weeks), 123,000 people certified and (are) going through the approval process now,” Cannon said. “So people are getting through on the system, the system is working.”

Federal law allows states 21 days to approve claims, Cannon said, but he’s seen on social media posts that some people are getting benefits within two weeks of their initial claim filing.

“We paid out millions of dollars last week, more than we ever have. So folks are getting through, folks are filing, folks are getting approved and folks are getting those benefits.”

Wanna work now? Try TN Talent Exchange

While many businesses are adding to the unemployment numbers through no fault of their own, others are hiring, including grocery chains and gas stations. Cannon said the department is participating in a new private-public partnership to connect people with those jobs in their communities.

It’s called TN Talent Exchange. Someone who’s lost a job an apply for unemployment but also use the site to fill out an application for one of those temporary jobs, many of which pay in the neighborhood of $15 an hour, Cannon said.

The department sends those applications to businesses needing workers in the applicant’s area. “You can be working within a day or two and that’s a benefit that’s going to pay your family right now, so we’re encouraging people to do that as well,” Cannon said.

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