(The Center Square) – Tennesseans from across the state voiced their frustration and anxiety over their unprocessed unemployment claims and their inability to receive benefits during a virtual town hall Friday sponsored by Tennessee House Democrats.
Because many businesses were forced to shut down or restrict services to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the state had about a half-million new unemployment claim filings between mid-March and early May. Of these claims, about 50,000 still were unprocessed as of last week and 22,000 still are unprocessed as of this week. Some of the unprocessed claims go all the way back to March filings.
“I had little faith in the government before this and now whatever I had is crushed,” said personal trainer and musician Michael Donegan, who has been out of work for nine weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and still hasn’t received benefits.
Donegan criticized the state for shutting down the gym he works for and other businesses with no real plan on how to sustain the economy. He said the shutdown was meant to be for only two weeks to flatten the curve, but then it kept getting extended.
Maria Mohary said she needs money for her premature baby and her husband, who is a disabled veteran. While crying, she said she doesn’t have enough money to buy formula for her baby or to put gas in her car to get medicine for her husband’s PTSD. She said she even considered taking her child to a fire station because she doesn’t know how to support her.
“I don’t know what to do,” Mohary said. “... I just wish that there was something that could be done.”
Shelby County resident Tjuana Kinard said she is a single mother who has not been receiving unemployment benefits and hasn’t been able to find out why. She said she’s had to spend entire days on the phone on hold with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce and still hasn’t been told why she hasn’t received her money.
“We didn’t ask to be in this position,” Kinard said. “... It’s not fair.”
Other attendees voiced similar frustrations with long wait times on the phone and a lack of answers from the department about why they have yet to receive their benefits.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said House Democrats are aware people have been waiting for benefits for weeks and that it is unacceptable. He said members of the caucus are meeting with Gov. Bill Lee’s administration about getting these claims processed.
“We know that it’s a completely unacceptable situation,” Stewart said during the town hall.
Stewart said Lee was invited to join the call, but did not.
During a news conference Thursday, Lee and Jeff McCord, the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, provided an update on these claims and said they’re working to get them processed.
“Every claim’s not the same,” Lee said. “Some of them are more difficult to process.”
When prompted by a reporter to address the town hall, McCord said he and everyone else in the department shares the same passion about processing these claims. He said the department is training people to get to claims that are more difficult to process and the department is trying to be as transparent as possible. He said he knows there are people behind these numbers.
Every region of Tennessee has begun to reopen to some extent, but more densely populated areas are opening at a slower rate than rural areas. The governor said Tennessee continues to hit the White House’s benchmarks for continuing with the reopening process.