Tennessee unemployment offices limit access, shift staff to handle jobless claims from COVID-19

Dr. David Banks instructs in a job preparation class Thursday at the American Job Center Tennessee in Eastgate Town Center.

With layoffs underway or expected soon at many restaurants, retailers and other businesses hurt by the coronavirus shutdown of activity, state unemployment offices are shifting their focus and staff to handle the expected surge in new claims for jobless benefits online.

On Monday, the American Job Center offices across Tennessee will begin limiting access to facilities and offer their claims processing and job-hunting assistance only online or by telephone. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which operates an office in Chattanooga at Eastgate Town Center, will close the local offices to walk-in traffic and shift staff to working on new jobless claims being filed online.

The majority of employees processing claims in Tennessee will be able to work from home, which officials said will limit their chances of being in contact with someone who might have the COVID-19 virus.

Georgia made a similar move to limit pubic access to the career centers in the Peach State on Wednesday.

In an announcement Friday, Tennessee Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord said the nearly 200 employees who work at the 23 local job centers across the state will focus on unemployment, tripling the staff assigned to handling jobless claims in the department.

That will account for nearly one third of the entire staff of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. But McCord said the additional focus on processing claims, rather than job postings, assistance and counseling done at local sites, will be key as the virus hits both physical and fiscal health of Tennessee.

"As a Department, we are shifting resources to align with our greatest need," McCord said in an announcement of the new office alignment and public restrictions. "The changes we are making will go a long way in keeping up with the demand created."

(Read more: COVID-19 forces Chattanooga restaurants to cut staff, make tough decisions)

Hundreds of restaurants and stores across Tennessee either closed or cut their operations in response to the coronavirus and many small businesses are having to cease operations and lay off staff.

Goldman Sachs Group analysts project that this week's U.S. unemployment aid applications increased more than 2 million, a record number.

"We are going to start to see really scary economic numbers," said Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at Ally Invest.

In Georgia, the state Department of Labor said it is receiving more claims every day than it did in a typical week last year and that number is likely to rise significantly in the next few weeks.

"We are seeing an incredibly high volume of claims," said Kersha Cartwright, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Labor. " We are working diligently to process these as quickly as possible and answer as many questions as we can."

Cartwright said Georgia officials are discussing with the U.S. Department of Labor about additional funds that should be forthcoming "and we are awaiting further direction."

Claims can be filed online in both Tennessee and Georgia.