As Democrats criticize Tennessee over unemployment filing woes, Gov. Lee says situation improving

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

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 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.

Knoxville man: "I was No. 847 in line"

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."

A Chattanoogan's struggle with the system

Tens of thousands of Tennesseans if not more have faced similar situations. Among them was Chattanooga hair stylist Emery Cooper, struggling to get back on her feet and restart her Wilcox Boulevard business after suffering two heart attacks when the coronavirus hit.

"Corona came along and shut my business down," said Cooper, 56, as she described the impact of one of Chattanooga government's responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: shutting down many types of businesses, including personal-contact locations such as hair salons like hers, on March 25.

Those orders have since been lifted in Hamilton County and Chattanooga as well as most areas of the state.

Cooper sought to apply for unemployment insurance benefits under the 85-year-old Great Depression law that established the dual federal and state unemployment systems designed to aid those out of work.

Congress had dramatically expanded the benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.

That was when Cooper was hit by yet the third punch as she and some 250,000 other out-of-work Tennesseans began applying for benefits in March and the first week of April.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development's online filing system was overwhelmed.

"It's just been a struggle to get connected, and when you do connect, there's no help available. That was my situation. It's just been frustrating," Cooper said.

She said the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development's website "kept spitting out 'in error'" even as she continued to have problems getting through by telephone.

"I guess there were so many people trying to get in that, again, it took me three weeks to get connected," added Cooper, who finally did manage to connect and qualify and received her first benefit check on May 1.

Cooper said that, after taxes, her benefits include about $120 from state funds and an additional $500 from funds available under Congress' Pandemic Unemployment Act, which provides unemployment benefits to sole proprietors such as Cooper.

Workers required to go back in unsafe jobs?

The breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic initially resulted in states suspending their look-for-work requirements for people on unemployment programs.

McCord has moved to reimplement those, citing federal guidance. That's led to concerns among some who say they are caught between two fears - risking loss of their benefits or having to go work in what they consider an unsafe environment.

"It really concerns me when we say to individuals, if you will not comply with 'x order' your benefits thus far will be cut off," Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said earlier this month. "Again, we're dealing with citizens, we're dealing with taxpayers, these are people who have done what they normally do."

George Wentworth, senior counsel with the nonpartison National Employment Law Project, said in a recent Times Free Press interview that employers calling workers back to work "is a big issue going on across the country as states are starting to try to reopen their economies."

Wentworth said that "basically, once you've been laid off under normal conditions, when you're recalled to the job you used to have, that's what we call suitable work and you normally have to accept or lose your unemployment benfits.

"However," he said, "the kind of presumption that your old job is suitable goes away if there's any sort of new health risks. And in most jobs right now that's the case."

The National Employment Law Project later charged that the U.S. Department of Labor "issued misleading guidance calling on employers to report to state UI agencies any workers who refuse to return to work. Yet at no time since this pandemic hit has DOL issued guidance reinforcing the fact that under federal law, workers only have to return to jobs where the 'prevailing conditions of work' - including health and safety conditions - are the same as before layoff."

The organization also stated that under Disaster Unemployment Assistance regulations applicable to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, "workers have the right to refuse work that would 'present an unusual risk to the health [and] safety' of the worker."

Contact Andy Sher at Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.