By ADRIAN SAINZ Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — More than 21,000 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed in Tennessee last week, bringing the total number of jobless people who have sought government payouts during the new coronavirus outbreak to 600,000, state officials said Thursday.
More than $288 million in unemployment benefits was distributed last week in the form of federal funds distributed under the federal emergency assistance package created to deal with financial effects from the virus response, the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development reported.
Tennessee usually depends on a trust fund to pay state unemployment benefits. But the state is using the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money for payments through June 30 to prevent the fund from falling below $1 billion, department spokesman Chris Cannon has said.
A tax increase starts for employers if the fund sinks below $1 billion. The fund's April balance was about $1.1 billion, Cannon said.
Of the 602,822 new claims filed since mid-March, about 309,000 remain active.
Stay-at-home orders from Gov. Bill Lee and city and county officials in mid-March led to business closures and hundreds of thousands of layoffs, as officials scrambled to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Businesses have gradually reopened in recent weeks, and many workers have been able to return to their jobs. But the number of new weekly filings is still much higher than normal, with some businesses remaining closed and employers cutting staff as they operate at a limited capacity due to social distancing rules.
The process of filing for and receiving unemployment payouts has frustrated jobless Tennessee residents who've complained about waiting more than a month to receive benefits. Problems include employers who were slow to respond to claims, confusion about who can receive funds, trouble with the state's unemployment website and an inability to get a claims agent on the phone in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, a group of Tennessee doctors that pushed Lee to issue a stay-at-home order is criticizing the state's reopening, saying it has led to a spike in coronavirus cases. On a Thursday conference call, Dr. Thomas Phelps, Dr. Susan Andrews and Dr. Amy Evans said the state needs a system of rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation to break the chain of infection. They are three of the more than 2,000 Tennessee physicians who earlier signed the petition for the stay-at-home order.
The three doctors also said the state needs to offer a consistent message on how to fight the virus and to base its reopening guidelines on science, not economic concerns.
"We understand it is very difficult. There are economic hardships," Evans said. "But I really believe they will become much worse if we do not take care of this public health crisis."
Phelps said Tennessee has seen a 42% rise in active coronavirus cases in the last 21 days, which corresponds with the reopening. He said he is not advocating to reshutter most businesses, but does want Tennessee to base its decisions on health data. He also said recommendations to social distance and wear a mask aren't working.
"Not wearing a mask is really saying you don't care about your neighbor," Phelps said. "Unfortunately the mask issue and social distancing have become a political thing now."
Andrews urged Lee to "Listen to the scientists. Listen to the epidemiologists."
"I want to reopen and return to normal, but we can't go back to life as usual unless you want to see a lot more people die."
The state was reporting 441 deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday.
In other developments, a federal judge in Shelby County declined to dismiss a lawsuit demanding the release of medically vulnerable inmates who are only jailed because they can't meet financial conditions for pretrial release or are being held on a technical violation of probation or parole.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the Shelby County Sheriff's Office on behalf of jail inmates who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 and are not deemed a flight risk.
The judge also has ordered the county sheriff to produce a list of the medically vulnerable and disabled people in his custody, the ACLU said Thursday.
Also, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis said Wednesday that it plans to reopen to the public after closing for three months due to the new coronavirus outbreak.