MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The pandemic has forced 1.07 million Tennesseans to file for unemployment for the first time.
The state is struggling to process the surge in claims, even with more manpower and more overtime than ever before.
Memphis resident Arnita Cole is waiting for her unemployment money.
Last March, Cole was laid off from the temp agency that assigned her to Graceland.
“I liked it. I took pictures with guests and they would send me pictures,” said Cole. “But with COVID, we couldn’t work.”
She filed for unemployment for the first time the week ending March 21st, when 39,096 Tennesseans were filing for the first time, too.
Cole received her unemployment without issue for months but when the federal program she was enrolled in ended, the money stopped.
She reapplied in November hoping she’d be eligible for a different federal unemployment program.
Three months later, she’s still waiting to hear back from Tennessee’s Department of Labor.
“It’s getting frustrating because my grandbaby has needs,” she said. “Plus I have bills. I have a house note, I have a car note. I have cable because I need to keep the internet for her to be able to do her online schooling.”
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have received dozens of similar complaints as roughly 80,000 Tennesseans wait for the Department of Labor to process their claims.
“What would you say to people still waiting?” Asked The Investigators.
“We are working tirelessly, and I mean that,” said Jeff McCord, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor, which oversees state and federal unemployment programs.
We asked why, nearly a year into the pandemic, so many Tennesseans are still waiting for help.
“People feel like the state just doesn’t care. Is that true?” Asked The Investigators.
“So, let me give you a statistic. In the last ten months, the Unemployment Insurance Department worked 22 years of overtime. We care,” he said.
“I’m sorry. 22 months or 22 years?” Asked The Investigators.
“22 years,” said McCord. “The folks here are working hard, we’re developing tools but yes, there is not a lack of effort that’s for sure.”
According to McCord’s office, 380 employees accrued 43,000 hours of overtime from March to December adding up to $1.1 million.
Taxpayers picked up in the tab in the form of federal CARES Act money.
That tab also included an additional $30 million to pay for an additional 600 new employees who were hired to only answer calls and process claims.
“600 people sounds like a lot of people but not when you talk about a million claims filed over the last ten months. So, there has to be a combination of people and technology to work through this,” said McCord.
Most of those employees are temporary, though McCord says many may need to be kept on full-time.
He says the department has also turned to automation to cut down on overtime, but when federal unemployment programs stop, start or change it takes time and more overtime to catch up.
“What happens Jessica is that you automate and then the environment changes,” he said.
What the department needs most, according to McCord, are adjudicators; people who determine if someone is eligible for unemployment and what program they may be eligible for.
According to federal guidelines, adjudicators cannot be third-party contractors. They must be hired by the state. There are currently 77 adjudicators on staff.
Cole is waiting on one of those adjudicators to help with her claim.
“Every time I call the Department of Labor they tell me they’re waiting on adjudicator and that’s been ever since November,” said Cole.
Adjudicators are difficult to hire, according to McCord. It takes three to five years to make it to that position.
People like Cole don’t have that time to wait.
“I have a mortgage, I have a light bill. I don’t want to get set out,” she said.
McCord says the real solution isn’t more manpower or more hours in the day.
“The answer to all of this is jobs,” he said. “The ability to move people from unemployment to work. We’re making progress there as well.”
Commissioner McCord is looking fill open positions within his department with problem-solvers and critical thinkers. If you’d like to apply, visit this link. Locate the “Apply Here” tab, and click “External Candidates”.
The Department of Labor also wants people to know that the virtual American Job Center helps match individuals with various programs that can assist in removing potential barriers that would keep them from going back to work: www.TNVirtualAJC.com.
Jobs4TN.gov currently has 250,000 jobs posted for various position and skill levels.
If you’re waiting for your claim to be processed, the Department of Labor asks you be patient and says the best thing to do while waiting is to apply for other jobs.
“The Department is diligently working to process claims as quickly as possible. Staff continue to work claims in the order they were received. Because of the unprecedented number of new claims due to the national pandemic, determining a claimant’s eligibility can take an extended period of time. Claimants should check the status of their claim on their account dashboard.
“While waiting on a decision, claimants can utilize the many resources the state has available to help them move from unemployment and back into the workforce,” said a Department of Labor spokesperson.