NASHVILLE — A group of state Democratic lawmakers say Gov. Bill Lee is “failing” thousands of jobless Tennesseans who remain in financial “limbo” amid continuing logjams of unprocessed unemployment claims.
The accusation comes as state Labor and Workforce Commissioner Jeff McCord’s department continues working through new claims as well as a backlog of applications stretching back to March when the Tennessee and U.S. economies began tanking amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Bill Lee is failing Tennessee’s working families when they need state government’s help the most,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, told reporters. “Thousands of families across Tennessee are scared, and they’re struggling to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads.”
On Thursday, the state reported an additional 28,692 jobless claims had been filed in the previous week, bringing the number of out-of-work Tennesseans seeking relief during a nine-week period beginning in mid-March to 532,580. Of that number, 314,487 people are receiving benefits, a slight drop from the previous week’s 325,095.
The situation is putting pressure on Tennessee’s once-vaunted unemployment trust fund, and a number of states have faced similar problems.
Speaking earlier this week to reporters during a Memphis trip, Lee, a Republican, acknowledged the woes, saying the massive numbers have posed “an incredible challenge.”
“As you know, the first week of this pandemic, our unemployment office received 25 times the amount of calls” as usual, Lee said. “We’ve received in the process about three and a half million customer calls in the last several weeks.”
The governor argued state labor officials “are through the vast majority of those. But what I would say to people that have experienced that is, it’s deeply regrettable that they’ve experienced it.
“It’s bad enough to lose your job and then to not be able to get unemployment as rapidly as we would like everyone to, it’s a real challenge for us,” Lee added.
Labor and Workforce Development Department spokesman Chris Cannon said that when layoffs commenced in March, the agency had only 20 staffers manning telephones. Over time, they’ve added nearly 400 more, he said.
Cannon said an “enhanced virtual chat agent named Peyton will be able to answer many questions, in addition to live chat agents.”
With a more experienced staff available, he added, the department “will soon start accepting voicemails from claimants. This will give them an opportunity to leave critical information about their claim so someone can look into any issues they may be experiencing.”
The department twice upgraded the hardware that powers its Jobs4TN.gov site during the first six weeks of the crisis, Cannon said, adding the last update “provided enough capacity to eliminate nearly all responsiveness issues when using the site.”
All the while, the department and its IT contractor were building three new unemployment programs provided through the federal coronavirus relief legislation, wrapping that work up “ahead of many other states across the country,” Cannon said.
During Lee’s teleconference call on Wednesday with Tennessee legislators, Labor Commissioner McCord said some 50,000 claims remain pending with a small percentage dating back to March.
Democrats remain skeptical, with Clemmons and two Democratic colleagues — Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Jason Hodges of Clarksville — on Wednesday holding a Zoom news conference with three unemployed Tennesseans who said they’ve been stuck in limbo since March.
Johnson said that after raising concerns on Twitter, she’s heard from hundreds of people who filed in March and are still trying to wade through state call-in lines and navigate what many continue to complain is a user-unfriendly online filing website.
Some have been unable to certify and have been told they must recertify.
“They’re not making mistakes, the system or the lack of a system is,” Johnson charged.
Paul Mohlman of Knoxville, an engineer who said he was laid off in March from the construction company he worked for, said he has “spent hours and hours and hours of my life on a telephone only to be hung up on. I’ve also been on the chat room ... where I was No. 847 [in line] and I waited until 4 or 5 p.m. or whenever it closed. And that has been the story.
“I have never once been able to contact somebody directly in unemployment who can help me,” Mohlman added. “The one human being I spoke to before (Rep. Johnson) was somebody in the governor’s office, and he basically told me I was out of luck. I have literally one penny in my bank account right now.”