MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses across the state, thousands of out-of-work Tennesseans still have not received their unemployment money.
Thousands of Tennesseans who are still waiting below to a Facebook group called TN Unemployment Nightmares.
The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus held a virtual town hall that was inspired by the stories posted in the group.
“This is the number one constituent issue,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson from Memphis.
While lawmakers responded to their constituents’ concerns during the town hall, they also took the opportunity to place blame squarely on the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“We asked them to prepare for this moment so it’s not like they didn’t know this moment wasn’t coming,” said Rep. Parkinson.
In an exclusive interview, The Investigators asked the person in charge of Tennessee’s unemployment system if he believes more could have been done to adequately handle the historic amount of layoffs.
“Do you think it could’ve been made simpler to apply for some of these benefits,” asked WMC Investigator Jessica Jaglois.
“It can always be simpler,” said Department of Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord. "I think what happened is that it’s not just the magnitude of what’s happened, it’s the suddenness of what’s happened as well.
“Those two things happening at the same time. There is little time to prepare for those sorts of things. So it can always be simpler but again, I’ll back to given the magnitude and suddenness, the preparation time was very minimal if any.”
Commissioner McCord said that this week, his department is ramping up efforts to hire 87 new employees who will process, review and make decisions on claims that require more expertise.
“We have a big problem, Jessica. So we have got to come up with good answers. We have had half a million claims over this time period and we do have claims pending,” he said.
According to McCord, there are already people working on the backlog of more 22,000 claims, starting with those who have been waiting the longest.
McCord some claims are on hold as the state continues to seek guidance from the federal government on how to process and approve them.
“Has it been good enough? The guidance that you’ve gotten from the federal government,” asked Jaglois.
“You always want to have it more clear and you want to have it more timely especially in a time like this,” said McCord. “But yes, I have no complaints about the guidance we’ve gotten from the federal government. We’re in this together. Walking through this together. It’s incredibly complex and an under pressure situation.”
After Congress passed the CARES Act in late March, each state had to process claims for workers who normally didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, like those who are self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers.
Commissioner McCord said his department built three new virtual systems to take on the caseload. The technology has helped hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans receive benefits, while thousands more await their turn.
“I’m on the verge of losing everything,” said Tijuana Kinard. “I haven’t received nothing. Not even a call back from nobody at the Department of Labor.”
As similar pleas for help continue to populate the TN Unemployment Nightmares Facebook group, Commissioner McCord said his employees are monitoring each new nightmare to see how they can provide relief.
“We feel the weight of your waiting and we’re working very hard to lift that weight. If you don’t reach out and contact us, we are still working on your claim. Especially the older ones, we know what they are and we have teams of people working so we can get those processed and lift that weight from you,” said McCord.
The Department of Labor is also hiring more people to scan in applications that continue to come in via mail.