Filing for unemployment in Tennessee? State adds staff to help speed claims
April 7, 2020
Jamie McGee, Nashville Tennessean
As more than 250,000 Tennesseans are facing layoffs tied to the economic crisis spurred by COVID-19, many are struggling to access unemployment benefits because of a bottleneck of claims being reviewed by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In recent weeks, as claims began pouring in, labor department officials have shifted 200 staff members and upgraded the system, but residents are still facing computer system failures as they struggle to pay bills. Officials have said more work is being done to fix the strained system and said they foresee improvements in the next week "or so." "We understand time is of the essence," Jeff McCord, Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner, said Tuesday. "We feel a huge weight and a huge sense of urgency at the department to get these funds out, the benefits out to Tennesseans. We are making progress but we still have more progress to make." Tennessee is facing an unprecedented wave of unemployment claims. In a three-week period, Tennessee typically sees 10,000 claims. There have been 250,000 claims in the past three weeks, and the department will pay more than 100,000 claims this week, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday. "The massive number of new claims has required additional resources to make the system run efficiently," Lee said. "You can imagine the impact on our system as this massive number of folks have filed for unemployment." Avoid peak hours, state advises McCord said the department is adding staff on the weekends to make the process works seven days a week. To improve their chances of getting through the system, the Tennessee labor department has advised applicants to file for unemployment benefits outside of peak business hours. They should instead try submitting a claim before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m., said department spokesman Chris Cannon. While some applicants said they had still faced computer system failures during later hours, department officials said improvements were underway. A connection error had occurred Monday night and it has been corrected and additional servers are being purchased, Cannon said Tuesday. "The state is currently in the process of purchasing that equipment," Cannon said. "As soon as it is available, the Department’s vendor will incorporate that added capacity into the system. " Brendan Skwire, who was laid off from a stage hand job in Nashville on March 20, began applying for unemployment in the week after he lost work. He has applied unsuccessfully for benefits each day or night in the last week, choosing different times to avoid another system crash. He has had password issues, multiple website crashes while submitting and spinning icons, and those answering the phones have instructed him to try again online. “This can take as long as an hour or more just to where you confirm the information they already have,” Skwire said. “It is really frustrating.” In the meantime, he needs to pay for groceries and send rent to his housemate, as well as address looming bills. Lost a job because of COVID-19? Here's how to get unemployment benefits in Tennessee. Self-employed, independent contractors wait for updated system For those who are self-employed and are seeking to file unemployment claims, the state continues to work on implementing a process to support these workers. Previously ineligible for unemployment benefits, self-employed and independent contractor workers were added through the federal stimulus package and they also qualify for an additional $600 weekly benefit available to all people approved for unemployment benefits. The state labor department had been waiting on the federal government on guidance on this, which they received Sunday. Cannon said state labor officials do not have a date for when the system will be in place, but said self-employed residents can go ahead and file for benefits. They will be approved when the processing system is in place. "Everyone is working as quickly as possible to roll out those changes so the Department can start paying those benefits to eligible claimants," Cannon said in a statement. Those who are self-employed and were denied benefits prior to Congress passing the $2 trillion stimulus package, will have their applications backdated so that they can access unemployment benefits and the additional $600 payments. "No money lost," McCord said. Job search requirements In normal times, unemployment benefit applicants must show they are applying for jobs. The labor department said those who have a job to return to will not have to do weekly searches. Those who are not "job attached" must still show they are applying for work. An executive order from Lee changed the requirement, though, so claimants are not applying for jobs but for work that can be done remotely, Cannon said. Reach Jamie McGee at 615-3101-873 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_.