Extra COVID-19 pay for jobless benefits coming this week but Tennesseans will have to wait

UPDATE: Jobless claims soar as 10% of Americans lose their jobs; one of every 20 workers in Chattanooga area filed a claim

Original story:

Federal funds to expand unemployment benefits are on their way to state employment agencies as the number of jobless Americans surges to a record high.

But for now, unemployed Tennesseans will have to wait at least another week to get the extra $600 a week in jobless benefits promised under the stimulus plan Congress adopted last month. Currently, the maximum benefit paid to jobless workers is $275 a week in Tennessee and $330 a week in Georgia.

Chris Cannon, assistant commissioner for communications in the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state agency received guidance from the federal government over the weekend on implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act on paying the extra $600 federal supplement to jobless claimants.

"We do not have a confirmed date when the system will be ready to process Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or the additional $600 weekly benefit," he said. "Everyone is working as quickly as possible to roll out those changes so the department can start paying those benefits to eligible claimants."

Tennessee's labor department has tripled its capacity to handle telephone calls and online filings for unemployment benefits, although the department closed its 23 career centers across the state last month to walk-in traffic and no longer has in-person visits to limit chances of spreading the coronavirus.

Under an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee last week, the usual one-week waiting period to file for unemployment benefits has been waived so jobless Tennesseans can file immediately for benefits when they lose their jobs. The new law also adds jobless benefits for gig, contract and other part time workers who wouldn't normally qualify. Benefits are open to others who've been impacted, such as workers who were quarantined, left work due to risk of exposure or to care for a family member.

Last week, Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler urged federal officials to speed the implementation of the supplemental jobless benefits to aid the growing number of unemployed persons in the Peach State.

"We will quickly implement the new federal program and make these funds available to Georgians as soon as we are given the approval by USDOL," Butler said. "We have been assured hat we will be able to backdate any payments for all eligible weeks beginning March 29th."

In the final two weeks of March, nearly 10 million Americans filed for jobless benefits - outpacing even the level of jobless claims seen during the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. Economists have forecast that if the stay-at-home orders remain in place for many weeks, the U.S. jobless rate could jump to anywhere from 10% to 30%.

State websites and phone lines across the country have been overwhelmed with applicants - causing sites to crash, phone lines to ring busy and much-needed payments to be delayed. While many states are doing their best to respond - adding staff, updating technology and streamlining the process - it's tough to keep up with the pace of demand.

"There's no hospital system in the world that's designed to handle what we're dealing with," Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted told reporters. "Our unemployment compensation system's the same way."

Ohio handled twice as many claims in the past two weeks than it had over the past two years. The state has increased its online capacity for processing claims 20 times, added hundreds of workers, yet users might still encounter delays.

New York's Department of Labor said its phone system recorded more than 8.2 million calls last week, compared with 50,000 in a typical week. Its online filing system received 3.4 million visits during that time, compared to the usual 350,000. The site has crashed several times in recent weeks under the burden.

To handle the influx, New York has added 20 servers, hundreds of staff and expanded its hours of operations. It's also trying to reduce the surge by asking people to file on different days based on the first letter of their last name.

"It is not working as smoothly as I would like to see it," Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "It's compounding people's stress."

It's a problem playing out across the nation.

"Financially stressed Americans should not have to spend hours on the phone waiting for someone to process their application or answer their questions," Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden and Bernie Sanders said in a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Labor.

They urged Secretary Eugene Scalia to ensure states get funding quickly for administrative support that they've been granted under recent legislation.

The crush on the system is leaving some Americans in need frustrated and empty handed for now.

Duane Shepherd, 53, tried to file for unemployment for this week after getting laid off from his oil-and-gas servicing job in rural Vernal, Utah. He gave up after the online system barred him from backing up to fix a minor error. The online-chat function was unavailable and phone calls were rejected because of high volume. He considered visiting a local office in person, but heard he'd be routed back to the phone system. Shepherd plans to try to file again, and hopes to live on his small savings as he looks for work.

"The system is broken, it's absolutely broken. I don't know how people aren't climbing the walls with frustration," he said.