Commentary: Legislature unnecessarily cruel to Tennesseans facing unemployment

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives mill about in House Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives mill about in House Chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

There’s no point in politely dancing around the truth any longer: Tennessee’s Republican supermajority is cold, cruel, and downright heartless. 

This is especially obvious when it comes to decisions that affect working families. 

As a small snapshot, look at what has happened just in the past couple of weeks.

The first half of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly adjourned on May 5th and one of the last pieces of legislation passed during the four-month session was a bill that would cut the amount of time that someone could draw unemployment benefits from 26 weeks, to a nationwide low of 12 weeks. 

In a half-hearted attempt to make this bitter pill easier to swallow, legislators also tacked on a slight increase in weekly benefits and emphasized that the changes won’t take effect until late 2023.  

Instead of ensuring that Tennesseans could make ends meet and provide for their families while looking for a job, legislators were determined to shame them into not relying on the government for help at a vulnerable time.

All of this during a global pandemic. Another smack in the face to the working class. 

During the legislative debate over cutting unemployment benefits, elected officials insulted Tennesseans by calling them ‘lazy.’

Unfortunately, the story only gets worse. 

Less than a week later, Gov. Bill Lee announced that he would be cutting the state off from the extra federal unemployment benefits, which have provided job-searching Tennesseans with an additional $300 each week. 

For many workers, these supplemental benefits have been a critical lifeline throughout the course of the pandemic, allowing them to keep the lights on, pay their rent, and keep food on their tables.   

It may not happen overnight, but Lee and the Republican leadership’s recent action will almost certainly result in lasting harm to working families. 

What’s almost worse than what’s been done is what’s been said about Tennesseans who have had to rely on unemployment benefits for over a year, many of them having lost their jobs through no fault of their own. 

During the debate on whether or not to slash unemployment benefits, the false narratives and flat-out lies pushed by the Republican supermajority were horribly offensive. 

“Tennesseans are lazy.” 

“Tennesseans would rather sit at home and collect unemployment than look for a job.” 

“There are plenty of available jobs in the state. No one wants to apply for them.” 

Keep in mind that these claims are just a sampling of what was said in both chambers. 

Let’s clear up a few things. 

Tennesseans are some of the hardest-working people in the country. They want to work and provide a good living for themselves and their families. In spite of arguments to the contrary from Republican leaders, they don’t want to collect unemployment indefinitely. 

Ask yourself who gains from making it nearly impossible to draw unemployment insurance. Working Tenneseeans pay enough for different insurances they can barely use.

There’s also an important fact that proponents of these mean-spirited actions fail to mention: the thousands of available jobs throughout the state are low-paying, offer little-to-no benefits, and are unable to sustain a family. 

Another important piece of information that’s left out: many of these jobs are available in urban areas or more populated counties. 

Do state officials really expect a single mom from Fentress County to drive a couple of hours to work at a low-paying job that barely covers the cost of gas?

The extent to which the Republican leadership in Tennessee has become disconnected from the real problems facing our state would be laughable if it wasn’t so destructive. 

Instead of passing laws and enacting policies that cause working families to suffer even more, our elected officials should be focused on raising the minimum wage to an actual living wage, ensuring that child care is accessible and affordable, expanding Medicaid, and an unending list of other issues. 

Stop fighting imaginary, ideological wars and start actually working for your constituents who sent you to Nashville to represent their interests. 

If not, some of these same lawmakers could be collecting a pink slip from voters next November. 

Leadership is more important than ever, and Tennesseans demand and deserve better leadership.