Tennessee leaders work to improve struggling unemployment system

NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) – Tennessee’s unemployment system saw an unprecedented increase in new claims filed during the COVID-19 pandemic with 532,580 since mid-March.

Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord told News 2 the pending claims were about 50,000 the week ending May 9th.

He explained why people who filed in March were still waiting on their payments.

“We do have a small percentage, and it’s not helpful if you’re in that small percentage of March claims that are still pending. And, the answer there is some claims are harder than others to either adjudicate or close and clear,” McCord said, adding there could be an error to the claim or a lack of necessary documentation. “We are working. We have 6 teams of 12 to 18 folks who are working from the oldest to the newest claims and working hard on making sure those March claims get cleared as soon as possible.”

The number of continued claims was 314,487 the week ending May 16th; McCord said they seemed to have leveled off and the department is seeing fewer people re-certify.

However, there were also concerns from people trying to call the unemployment office. McCord said employees are working those claims whether or not people call about them.

“We know that there’s a problem and the call volume remains high. We’re working on identifying why that is,” McCord said. “We’re likely to begin staging voicemails too so people can leave us a message and we can understand their issues. We’re getting the capacity to do that as far as number of people that we’d have to manage that.”

People have reported dropped calls and waiting long periods of time to talk with a claims agent.

“When we get them in the queue, it’s not bad. The issue is getting them in the queue and so we are not able to take all the calls that we get at this time,” said McCord. “Wait time once you get in the queue is 5 or 6 minutes or so but, we understand it doesn’t matter if you can’t get to us for a phone call.”

The call center is open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and on weekends, so McCord advised people call on either extremity of that time frame or on the weekends when call volumes aren’t as high.

Before the pandemic, there were 20 people taking calls and now there are about 420.

“Mid-March is when we saw this coming so that’s when we transferred or redeployed about 250-300 people to the phones,” McCord added. “But then it kept building and it kept building and it kept building. I think that surprised everybody across the country.”

McCord said it’s not just a “people” issue, it’s an “expertise” issue because it usually takes years to develop the expertise of a good claims agent.

“What we have done even though we haven’t had years is we’ve had a lot of experience in a very short period of time so now what we’re doing is building that capacity,” McCord said.”We’ll increase our adjudicators by 50 percent, we’ve already started doing that. Our claims agents with deep knowledge by 50 percent which we’ve already started doing that as well.”

He said they are also working to improve their technology to solve problems before they even get a question about them. Their computer systems saw a more than 2,000 percent increase in usage.

“We struggled with that capacity. We did one upgrade and quickly outgrew it – our vendor did. And then we did another upgrade – a substantial upgrade – that’s helped us tremendously in the performance of the systems that we’re running,” said McCord.

The department built three completely new systems for processing claims that didn’t exist before, with the most recent being a program extending unemployment compensation through the CARES Act for folks who exhausted their claim.

“That is one of the new systems that we had to build – it’s a provision under the CARES Act as well that if you’ve exhausted benefits, whether it’s you’ve exhausted benefits and were just on the Tennessee benefits or you’ve exhausted benefits and were just on the federal benefits,” McCord said. “Building that system does not take away from the fact that we’re working the old claims now and exclusively working the old claims for the newer systems. The folks who were on the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation were waiting for benefits. They were rightly due them as well so we needed to build the system to get them those benefits.”

There were 28,692 new unemployment claims filed in Tennessee the week ending May 16th as the state continues seeing families financially impacted by the pandemic.

“Our agency feels the weight of that every day. We get up every day to try to lift that weight not from our selves but from the folks that we are here to serve,” McCord said. “We are working oldest claims first every day to get those resolved and for folks who are eligible to get those benefits to them. We’re not lacking for the effort.”

COVID-19 in Tennessee

(This reflects what the TDH is reporting each day at 2 p.m. CST for every county other than Davidson. Information for Davidson comes from the Metro Public Health Department.)

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