The Investigators: Labor commissioner says worker shortage to blame for Tenn. unemployment delays

Labor commissioner: Worker shortage to blame for Tenn. unemployment delays

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - There are still tens of thousands of unemployment claims that still haven’t been processed in Tennessee. The state’s department of labor reviews the applications and then sends money to those who qualify.

The Investigators sat down with the Tennessee Department of Labor commissioner to ask what’s being done to process the backlog and bring relief to desperate, unemployed workers.

Unemployed Tennesseans have been speaking with The WMC Action News 5 Investigators since March when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted historic layoffs.

Each have different jobs, live in different neighborhoods, with different family structures but their stories are similar.

Montrisscey Boyle cooked at a local hotel.

“I’m struggling by myself,” said Boyle. "Trying to take care of things. The only thing that has really gotten me this far is prayer because I haven’t received a check.

Duke Leyman served at a Collierville restaurant.

“It was the right call to lay us off, in a sense, but it’s also hard to stomach not knowing if you’re going to have income,” said Leyman.

Anthony Parker worked in purchasing.

“The biggest problem you have with not working, first of all, you have too much time on your hands is number one,” said Parker. “Number two, you are constantly worried.”

Patti Foster worked at a furniture store.

“It’s really frustrating because I can’t talk to anyone and I’ve got no money since I stopped working there,” said Foster.

What would you say to people who still have not received unemployment? Who are eligible and it’s been two months?

Jeff McCord has been in charge of the Tennessee Department of Workforce Development and Labor since January 2019, when he was appointed by the incoming governor Bill Lee.

“We feel the weight of your waiting and we’re working very hard to lift that weight,” said McCord.

McCord says the pandemic’s effect on employment in Tennessee was both swift and unprecedented. It took an immediate toll on his department.

Some of the things we’ve heard, though, is that people can’t get through or they’re being told different things by different agents. What efforts have been made to man the phones?

“We’ve added 400 people to the phones. We’ve gone from about 20 to 420,” said McCord. "First people we hired were those who were displaced from American Job Centers and at least understood the process.

Still, more than 22,000 claims are on hold, leaving applicants with questions that either can’t or won’t be answered.

But what about training? How many people have you hired?

“You hit a very good point,” said McCord. “We’re in less of a people problem and more of an expertise problem. It takes years to get claims knowledge, deep claims knowledge that you need to solve those deeper claims. But we’ve had a lot of practice in a short amount of time. I think our effort now is not only more people but more people with expertise.”

Commissioner McCord says six teams of the 12 to 18 people are working to process the backlog, starting with the oldest claims first.

He says he’s also trying to hire more people to both process the claims and adjudicated them.

“An adjudicator looks and is actually the person who makes the decision on the claim,” said McCord. “So they have to have that knowledge. So that is happening and we will increase adjudicators by 50%, which will help a lot on these more complex claims. At the end of the day, some of the claims are going to be harder to process than the others.”

Claims like Layman’s, Parker’s Foster’s and Boyle’s.

After we inquired about their claims, they were processed. Two have received their unemployment benefits.

McCord says his department is trying to find commission issued with these complex claims to solve then en masse.

When asked what the four Tennesseans would say to the commissioner of they had the chance...

“That means absolutely nothing to me that you all don’t have the manpower or whatever the case may be,” said Parker. “Because at the end of the day, I still have my responsibilities to take care of that I can’t because the State of Tennessee is giving me the runaround.”

“We were asked not to work and told we’d get unemployment but a lot of us still haven’t gotten it,” said Leyman.

“I feel for what he has on his shoulders because this is a big issue that he has to carry and sleep with on a nightly basis,” said Boyle. “Even though we wakin’ up every morning to try and get into the line, he’s going to sleep every night wondering who he did not help.”

“I appreciate the empathy and it’s mutual,” said McCord. “We are making every effort to make it so nobody has to have sympathy for each other.”

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