State’s unpreparedness causes frustration for thousands

Larry Van GuilderAs I see it

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) signed into law on March 27 contains the federal government’s commitment to extend and expand unemployment benefits. Among its provisions, the act adds $600 per week to the amount an individual receives from the state and increases the number of weeks benefits may be received. It also extends coverage to independent contractors and other self-employed workers who have traditionally been ineligible for benefits.

The good intentions behind the legislation mean nothing if the state system is broken. Over the past weeks, state Rep. Gloria Johnson has learned just how broken Tennessee’s system is as she tries to help desperate constituents with their unemployment claims.

“It’s wild,” Johnson said. Many unemployed are spending “all day every day” trying to get unemployment benefits started. One constituent called 311 times between 9 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. before getting into the system.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson

Johnson said the lack of “real transparency” on the department’s website adds to the frustration.

The fortunate few who manage to connect with a department employee on the help desk may come away frustrated as ever. As Johnson noted, call center workers “can’t get into the weeds” to resolve complex problems.

Other claimants may be tripped up by the wording on the benefits application. The list of reasons for leaving your previous job includes “asked to resign.” To a worker whose employer had closed up shop because of the pandemic, that might seem a reasonable choice, but selecting it will cause the claim to be denied.

Johnson, who says she has been getting calls “from all over the state,” wonders why the governor didn’t see the disaster coming. People in the department are “working their tails off,” but there aren’t enough tails. Meanwhile, thousands have been without income for seven weeks or more.

“You’ve got to hire more staff,” Johnson said. (In addition to Commissioner Jeff McCord, there are 10 “deputy” or “assistant” commissioners in the department’s “leadership team.” Johnson was clearly pointing out the need for more frontline helpers.)

Karen E. Reynolds is an award-winning songwriter, singer and mentor to other music business professionals. She’s spent 25 years building her career.

Karen E. Reynolds

When the pandemic shut down the state, she found herself “in the deep end without a life raft” as one venue after another closed. Trying to navigate the unemployment claim process became an everyday exercise in frustration. Telephone calls would connect, then disconnect, dumping her into “an endless loop.”

“It will test your manners!” she says.

After many such experiences since around the end of March, Reynolds was finally able to sign up. She communicates with her peers through social media and realizes her experience is not unique.

Oslo Cole began attempting to apply for compensation on March 29. A business consultant with a background in human resources, he’s a self-employed professional like Reynolds. Just this week he learned that his application had been approved, but he does not know the weekly amount.

“The system wasn’t initially built to handle this volume,” he said. He also shared a belief he holds in common with many others – the system was poorly designed to discourage would-be claimants.

Although he is behind in his rent, electric bill and cellphone bill, he admits matters could be worse: “If I hadn’t reached out to Gloria, I have no doubt my claim would still be in limbo.”

His advice for others struggling with their claim is to hold on to as much cash as possible and remain vigilant.

“Don’t assume everything is working as it should.”

Calls to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development seeking comment on this story were not returned.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for Knox TN Today.

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