NASHVILLE - Manuel Smith, of Soddy-Daisy, says he has been in a slow-motion downward spiral after Tennessee officials let federal extended unemployment benefits end for him and thousands of other longtime jobless people on April 16.
"I've been sitting here without any cash in my pocket for weeks, begging," said Smith, unable to find work since he was laid off from his forklift-driving job during the recession. "I'm 61 years old. You can't get no job."
But Smith and as many as 28,000 other unemployed Tennesseans are now getting some help from the state. Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday signed into law a bill restoring federally funded relief for longtime jobless Tennesseans.
The federal program provides an additional 20 weeks of benefits after 26 weeks of state benefits and 53 weeks of other federal aid runs out.
Tennessee's unemployment rates stood at 9.6 percent in April. The Commercial Appeal of Memphis this week reported that nine of the state's 10 metropolitan statistical areas made up nearly half the cities nationwide where unemployment rose in April.
In mid-April, Tennessee was dropped from the extended benefits program after Haslam, a Republican, decided not to adjust state law to new federal requirements. State labor officials said they weren't told of the loss until March 28.
Haslam at first said restoring the benefits were not a "top priority" for him. Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, agreed.
But a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers began pushing to get the state back on the program and Haslam went along.
Don Ingram, state administrator over employment security, said Thursday the department has been "proactively" preparing for getting people back onto the program.
The longtime jobless should be back on the program relatively soon, Ingram said.
"I think it's safe to say within the next two weeks."
The state will be able to draw down some $126 million in federal funds for those laid off in the private sector. The program ends in December.
The $30.8 billion state budget, meanwhile, includes about $3 million to provide benefits to state and local workers who have been laid off and are not helped by the federal program.
How the federal program was allowed to expire remains somewhat murky. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, has said he thinks it fell between the cracks during the transition between then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and Haslam.
For Smith in Soddy-Daisy, the issue was whether officials would do anything. He said he's glad they did act.
"Lord," he said by telephone, "it'll keep me eating."