Democrats, Department of Labor disagree on unemployment process

IStock/Getty Images
IStock/Getty Images

Conflicting pictures of Tennessee’s processing of unemployment claims were laid out Wednesday morning by Democratic state representatives on one side and the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development on the other. 

In a phone call with lawmakers on Wednesday morning, Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord discussed the volume of claims his department has received since the pandemic hit. 

McCord said that between March 14 and the week ending May 9, the state received over 500,000 initial claims. Of those, 50,000 remain in the claims-pending pipeline, McCord said, while representatives from the department have cleared an additional 30,000 claims in the last week alone. 

Jeff McCord, commissioner of Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development (Official photo)
Jeff McCord, commissioner of Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development (Official photo)

Nashville State Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-55) disputed the state’s claims of efficiency in a virtual press conference addressing constituent complaints with the unemployment system. 

Clemmons said he gets 200-250 emails a day from Tennesseans with questions ranging from technical difficulties on the state’s unemployment website to inability to reach the department of labor. 

 “This is their money, they paid into this system and they deserve this money,” he said. 

Clemmons was joined by Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-13) and Clarksville Rep. Jason Hodges (D-67) and several unemployed Tennesseans who detailed their issues with the system. 

McCord admitted those seeking unemployment have been subjected to long wait times on the phone, but added Tennessee’s processing is on a par with federal levels.  

The federal government tracks what percentage of initial claims remain continued claims at the national level. Last week, the federal government reported 36 million initial claims and 22 million continued claims, which amounts to 61 percent. Tennessee, by comparison, had 506,000 initial claims and 325,000 continued claims, which is 64 percent.

McCord also addressed some of the concerns raised by Clemmons, Johnson and Hodges, namely the perceived lack of response to those seeking unemployment relief from his department.

  “This is their money, they paid into this system and they deserve this money.”   – Rep. John Ray Clemmons

The 400 additional employees hired to help with the volume of calls has been a partial solution but many of the new employees lack claims expertise that takes time to develop.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons (Photo: John Ray for Tennessee website)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons (Photo: John Ray for Tennessee website)

“One of the issues all states are facing is it’s not just a people problem, it’s an expertise problem,” said McCord. “It’s hard to hire claims expertise in scale and it’s tough to develop that expertise.”

“We are in the process of adding adjudicators that will help our harder claims get through. We are increasing, and will increase by 50 percent in the next week or two,” he added, saying those teams will work on the oldest claims first. 

Clemmons said it’s unfair to ask Tennesseans to return to work when they’ve not been paid for unemployment during quarantine, and plans to ask Gov. Lee to address the issues ongoing since March when pandemic-related shutdowns began.