Before the session began, a nervous hush filled the small room at the Chattanooga Career Center.
The only sound was the scratch of pencils on paper as each person made their way through paperwork. No one looked at one another. No one wanted to be there.
"Is everyone here because of lack of work?" asked Amy Wallace, a young blonde employee with the Tennessee Department of Labor, trying to lighten the mood with a smile. "When were you laid off?"
Five times a week, Ms. Wallace helps groups of Chattanoogans who have recently lost work in this recession navigate the tedious process of filing for unemployment insurance.
Since the end of January, career centers across the state have been holding mass unemployment claim sessions because the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development cannot handle the flood of calls from unemployed workers looking for help.
Across the state line in Georgia, officials also are awash in unemployment insurance claims. In fact, the Georgia Department of Labor has been mobilizing its offices to go to companies with massive layoffs and talking to people on-site.
Requirements to participate in mass claim sessions:
* Must have been laid off for lack of work or reduction in force.
* Must have worked only in Tennessee for the last 18 months.
* Separation notice or letter from employer stating lack of work as reason for layoff.
* Two IDs - driver's license or state photo ID card and another, such as birth certificate or utility bill in your name.
* Social Security number.
* Address and telephone number.
* Former employer's name, address and telephone number.
* Last day worked and places of employment for last 18 months.
Source: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development
The sessions are held at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays and at 8:30 a.m. on Fridays.
ON THE WEB
For more information about the state's mass claim sessions go to http://www.tennessee.gov/labor-wfd/claimhelp.htm.
Many of those filing for unemployment need state support for the first time in their lives, said Richard Butler, an employee at the Chattanooga Career Center. Since the meetings began Jan. 29, 233 people have attended emergency claims sessions, he said. Understandably, the tone of the meetings is often sullen and downcast, he said.
In March, 52,694 people filed unemployment claims in Tennessee, a significant jump from March 2008 when 22,587 people filed, said Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the Department Labor and Workforce Development. Last week alone, 14,176 Tennesseans were filing for unemployment insurance, he said.
Unemployment claims in the United States jumped to a 16-year high last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which released numbers Thursday. Officials said first-time jobless claims rose to a seasonally adjusted 542,000 from a downwardly revised figure of 515,000 in the previous week.
The number of people continuing to claim unemployment insurance increased for the third straight week to more than 4 million, the highest since December 1982, when the economy was in a painful recession, according to The Associated Press.
Typically in Tennessee, unemployment claims are not handled at career centers, which are responsible for offering help with continuing education, job searches and interview training. But officials with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development are authorizing some center employees to handle claims because of the sheer demand.
"They have been so slammed that they gave us access," Mr. Butler said.
Mr. Hentschel said the state's five unemployment claim call centers are receiving 6,000 calls per week, about the same as last year, and mass claim sessions are elevating the burden on the state system.
Philip Claiborne, who was laid off from a small chemical company in Hamilton County where he had worked for six years, was among the crowd of people lining up at the career center last week for help with claims or finding a job.
For the first time in his adult life, Mr. Claiborne said he will be counting on the government for help with food and utility payments. He said he has a wife and four cats who rely on him.
"I have worked as hard as I could (for the company), but they were hurting for money," Mr. Claiborne said. "I have done good work for them."
Although the outlook appears bleak, Mr. Claiborne said he has confidence in the future. He said he thinks he can find work at another chemical company or in shipping and receiving at another company.
Danny Cope, manager at the Dalton, Ga., Career Center, said the most difficult thing for people facing unemployment is not knowing the future.
With companies in the area cutting thousands of jobs, competition for work is fierce, and it can take a long time to find new work, he said.
As soon as he gets someone through the paperwork related to filing an unemployment claim, he said he encourages them to use the career center's services such as counseling, job databases and interview training.
"There is a tone of uncertainty," Mr. Cope said. "We are trying to offer them hope."
The Associated Press contributed to this report