The Investigators: How those who file for unemployment in the Mid-South are falling through the cracks

Cries for help in the fight for unemployment benefits in Mid-South

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As businesses partially reopen in the Mid-South, tens of thousands of people who have been or remain out of work still have not received their unemployment benefits.

“I’m grasping at straws trying to get someone to help me,” said Jessica Miller. “It’s really hurtful that I can’t go out there and provide for my family.”

Miller’s three children rely on her salary as a server to put food on their own table.

Miller had just started a new serving job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tennessee and Governor Bill Lee shut down restaurants across the state.

“I love what I do and I love serving,” said Miller. “I love taking care of people so it was devastating because this is pretty much the only line of work I know from my entire adult life.”

She applied for unemployment insurance with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Miller’s claim was denied because, even though she had worked at another restaurant for over seven years, the system said she hadn’t been at her new job long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance.

The Investigators: New unemployment filings are going down but will the decrease continue?

According to the Tennessee Department of Labor, 16,767 unemployment claims have been denied since March.

Reasons for denials vary but the most common reasons include:

  • Discharge due to work-related cause
  • Quit without good work-related cause
  • Medical issue, not work-related (COVID-19 excluded to some extent)
  • Severance or Wages in Lieu of Notice
  • Base Period Pension
  • Not being Able & Available

Miller didn’t fall into any of these categories.

“I felt confident that I would be eligible for compensation during this time that I was unable to work,” said Miller.

How an unemployment claim is processed in Tennessee begins with an unemployed worker’s application.

Then, an employer provides certain information to move that claim forward. That can take more than a week.

Finally, the claim is assigned to an agent for review. The agent then approves or denies the claim. If a claim is denied, a person can appeal. So far 10,001 Tennesseans have appealed their denials.

However, many more Tennessee workers are waiting for their claims to be processed.

As of May 7, there were more than 93,600 unemployment claims pending approval.

In the Facebook group TN Unemployment Nightmares, hundreds of people say they’ve been waiting for weeks or months for their claims to be processed.

“The crisis is revealing the cracks in the government infrastructure that we have,” said Jared Walczak, state tax policy director for the Tax Foundation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

Walczak said while there’s never been more money available for the unemployed, many people cannot access it.

“Most states, including Tennessee, had difficulty ramping up the program, actually enrolling people, actually getting benefits out the door,” said Walczak. “There’s delays, there’s difficulty in the system. Getting that administration right and fixing it during the good years really matters.”

However, the delay isn’t just in Tennessee.

Hairstylist LaToya Keys said she filed for unemployment with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security on March 28.

Her salon re-opened Monday and she has yet to receive an unemployment check.

“It’s been terrible,” said Keys. “I keep talking to multiple people and they keep telling me it’s under investigation.”

Meanwhile, self-employed and independent contracts, including hairstylists and some servers, were only able to apply for federal unemployment assistance in Arkansas last week after the Department of Labor finished updating its website.

“That’s really unacceptable but states have not really invested in making these changes over the years,” said Walczak.

As for Jessica Miller, after The Investigators reached out to the Tennessee Department of Labor on her behalf, she finally received her first check.

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