JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Thousands across the region are waiting for a check in the mail- their first installment of unemployment assistance after losing their jobs due to the pandemic.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development says it’s on track to pay more than one hundred thousand claimants to the tune of $30 million this week alone. Normally, the state pays fifteen thousand claimants about $4 million each week.
But now- the state’s system is changing and is continuously overloaded.
“The maximum you can get is $275 and of course if you take out for the federal taxes, you’re getting down to about $240 (or so per week). Really, that’s just about enough to buy groceries and gas,” said Billy Campbell who was recently laid off from his job of five years at Crenlo Cabs in Greeneville.
He supports his wife and son, who is a full-time college student. He has already received one check from the state but he worries that the federal money will be delayed.
“I’m afraid that Tennessee is going to lag behind and we need this money now because I’ve got bills coming,” Campbell said.
Andrea Sees is in the same boat. She filed for unemployment on March 22nd after being furloughed from her restaurant job.
“I’ve never filed for unemployment before and it was kind of like a challenge. I felt like I was answering a ton of questions wrong because I didn’t know the answers,” she said.
She hasn’t received a check yet but she hopes she can help others prepare for what they need to know through her experience.
“Keep track of your finances. Know how much you make monthly, that way when they ask you for these questions…because you’re supposed to know these different pay periods. I never kept track of that,” Sees said.
Sees also suggests postponing your bills if you can and creating a reminder to resubmit your claim weekly.
“Keep a tracker or something to keep up with your day to day stuff because that really will come back and help you eventually,” she said.
In his Wednesday briefing, Governor Bill Lee said the department was working to get the registration for funds from the CARES Act and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program up and on the website.
“The Department of Labor and Workforce development is currently reprogramming Jobsfortn.gov to accommodate the federal program- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA as you’ve heard about and the new $600 weekly federal benefit. The department is working diligently to make these changes as quickly as possible so Tennesseans can start receiving both the state and the federal payment,” Lee said.
Lee also said that if you’ve already filed for unemployment, you don’t have to reapply to receive the federal benefits.
The department is having to almost completely rework the website. Some things- like the 21 day period for the state to process claims, remain the same. But, there are some changes coming- like a section for self-employed, temporary and gig workers and a queue system that will allow you to come back at a later time so the system isn’t overloaded. Servers are also currently being upgraded to expand capacity.
“They are currently reprogramming the system to accommodate those changes from the CARES act and we expect to bring those programs online in the very near future,” said Chris Cannon, the spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce.
Cannon isn’t exactly sure when Tennesseans could see checks from the act or program in their accounts but he says it’s coming soon.
“The stimulus payment is different from the (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) and they’re working to reprogram the system to allow the self-employed and those gig workers and freelance workers to get that unemployment assistance as well as the $600 stimulus weekly benefit,” Cannon said.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is where the government pays and the state administers the program. It has the same rules as the Tennessee unemployment compensation but allows for more flexibility and eligibility.
Some self-employed and gig workers have received letters saying they are “monetarily ineligible,” he says that the system isn’t able to process those claims right now.
“It does not mean that your claim has been denied. That means that we are going to put that over to the side and once that system is upgraded to take care of that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, we’ll go back and pull those claims and start processing them. The system just isn’t designed for this because it never had to be because they never were before eligible for unemployment. So, we literally had to go in and reprogram the system for these new benefits,” Cannon said.
While it might seem to be a good idea to accept temporary work while you are laid off or furloughed, it could interfere with your unemployment benefits.
“You could still file for unemployment but you would have to certify each week and declare the wages you make each week. You may not receive unemployment that week,” Cannon said. “If your wages are greater than the benefit you were supposed to receive you wouldn’t receive unemployment for that week.”
Cannon stressed that everyone enrolled in the program must do their weekly certifications to verify unemployment to continue receiving benefits.
Continuing coverage of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.