Tennessee suspends unemployment benefits to at least 12,000 due to computer network breakdown

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Tennessee is suspending paying unemployment benefits to at least 12,000 unemployed workers due to a computer network breakdown by the vendor that handles the data processing for the state's unemployment benefits program.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said that it cannot access jobless claims data to make weekly unemployment benefit payments until its contract vendor, Geographic Solutions Inc., is able to restore network service for the state's unemployment system and labor data exchange, known as Jobs4TN.gov.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, the chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said the state's labor department should have had a backup system to avoid such a shutdown in services.

"With a recession looming, it is unacceptable that Tennesseans cannot receive the unemployment benefits they deserve," Bailey said in a statement Wednesday. "Unfortunately, this is not the first time there have been failures in the system. The Department of Labor needs a backup plan, so they are not completely dependent on a system proven to be unreliable."

Bailey said Gov. Bill Lee's administration should make it a priority to ensure Tennesseans receive benefits in a timely manner.

"But we continue to see failure," Bailey said. "There is absolutely no excuse anymore. The General Assembly provided funds to update the department's antiquated system, and every measure should be taken to streamline this move."

The network service from Geographic Solutions was interrupted Sunday, preventing Tennessee labor department employees from assessing job applications, unemployment claims and other information to process jobless benefits paid to unemployed people who are looking for other work. The network shutdown, which has also prevented job seekers from finding available jobs across Tennessee, has hampered service to Tennessee and about three dozen other states, officials said.

"GSI (Geographic Solutions Inc.) is working 24 hours a day to bring Jobs4TN.gov back online," Chris Cannon, chief communications officer at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said in a statement. "Until Jobs4TN.gov resumes normal operation, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development cannot access claimant data to make weekly unemployment benefit payments."

Cannon said Tennessee has not previously experienced such an outage since taking the unemployment system online. But he said there is no alternative to using the Jobs4Tn.gov website and data links provided by GSI.

"All claims are processed online through Jobs4TN and there is not a manual option available," he said. "Individuals who need to apply for unemployment will have to wait until the system is operating. ... The job posting area of Jobs4TN is also impacted by this outage."

Job seekers can still receive limited job services at one of the 80 Tennessee career centers operated by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, including its Chattanooga location in the Eastgate Town Center in Brainerd.

The computer outage comes at a time when Tennessee's jobless rate is near historic lows, so fewer Tennesseans are getting unemployment benefits and processing claims. But employers eager to fill more than 450,000 job vacancies across the state are also unable to advertise their jobs in the state employment program, which tries to find jobs for unemployed and new job seekers.

In Nebraska, which also uses Geographic Solutions to handle unemployment claims data, officials blamed the service interruption on a cyberattack.

"Geographic Solutions experienced a cyberattack that required our state labor exchange and unemployment claims system to be taken offline," the company wrote to the Nebraska Department of Labor.

Geographic Solutions, which is headquartered in Palm Harbor, Florida, said its team "is working around the clock to restore these systems to all users as soon as possible."

Job search websites in several states, including California, also are not in service due to the cyberattack against Geographic Solutions, according to media reports.

In Tennessee, Cannon said labor department leaders met repeatedly this week with Geographic Solutions representatives and the U.S. Department of Labor to identify ways to restore service, but he said "there is no timeline as to when the vendor will restore service."

Cannon said the state will distribute benefits "as soon as possible." In the meantime, individuals who are laid off or lose their job and attempt to file a new unemployment claim will have to wait for further instructions on how to apply once the system is operational.

"Once the system is operational, claimants can complete their certifications for any missed weeks, and they will receive a lump sum for any delayed payments," he said.

Cannon said such instructions will be available on the department's website at TN.gov/workforce once the computer network is back in operation.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.