Tennessee's newly unemployed hit benefits site in droves
Apr 03, 2020 By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jody Hull had been editing youth sports images for a photography company in Tennessee until the coronavirus forced schools — and their athletics — to shut down. Now she's laid off, and like many thousands of Tennesseans is trying to navigate the state's flooded unemployment claim process. New unemployment claims climbed to about 94,500 last week, up from 39,100 the previous week and 2,700 three weeks ago. With the huge influx, Hull and other applicants have hit snags trying to access the state’s online portal, to which the state added more capacity after the site saw a 2,000% increase in usage Tuesday. Hull said she contacted state Sen. Joey Hensley's office, who linked her up with a state labor official, who told her that because she returned to school to study at the Nashville Film Institute during some of the time in question, she wasn’t eligible for traditional unemployment, which pays up to $275 a week in Tennessee before the deduction of federal taxes. She thinks she is eligible for the coronavirus-specific federal money, but said it's been like running in a circle to figure out that process. “The dumbest employee in Tennessee ought to be able to access that, no problem, and get that money as quickly as possible back into the Tennessee economy,” Hull said of the new federal pandemic assistance. State labor officials have gone to Facebook offering guidance, assuring self-employed Tennesseans, for example, to ignore a message stating they are “monetarily ineligible.” They're also advising people to try to avoid applying during peak morning and afternoon hours, when web traffic is high. They've added guidance for different types of filers, and are tripling the staff to process claims. "With tens of thousands of additional people accessing Jobs4TN, the Department is doing everything possible to stay ahead of any issues so the people of Tennessee can apply for unemployment benefits," department spokesman Chris Cannon said. Tennessee's caseload has grown to more than 2,800, with at least 32 deaths, as the novel virus spreads among people with no natural immunity. For the vast majority, symptoms clear up in several weeks without requiring hospitalization, but the consequences can be life-threatening for older people and those with existing health problems. Hull is living at their house in Waynesboro, while her husband is staying 180 miles away at the apartment they rent near Chattanooga, so he can keep working as a utility foreman. She said she even can’t see him, because he works around people and fears he could carry the virus back into their home and small town. Hull doesn’t want to work in a grocery store, worrying that in that environment, “you’re just setting yourself up to catch” the virus. She’s previously driven tractor trailers, but she's heard of truckers getting infected, too. The photography company wants her back, once there is work for her again. For now, she’s praying and keeping her faith that things will improve. “I like doing film and video, so I’m at the house and I’ve got all kinds of stuff that I can study, and books I can read that I haven’t gotten to,” Hull said. “I’m just preparing for another day.” Meanwhile, a Cookeville nursing home said Thursday that 44 people there had tested positive for COVID-19, 28 patients and 16 staff, the Cookeville Herald-Citizen reports. Signature Healthcare at Putnam County administrator Lee Rooney said in a news conference that after a couple of positive tests, the facility asked the health department to come in and do a blanket test of everyone there. They tested 320 people. Of those who tested positive, Rooney said the vast majority were showing no symptoms. “Out of the 28 patients that tested positive, we don’t have anyone with a temperature over 100,” Rooney said on Thursday. “You wouldn’t even know that they were positive. That’s what is scary about this right now.” The facility said in a news release it would dedicate a wing for COVID-19 patients that will be isolated with its own entrance, supplies and staff.