State Officials Explain Unemployment Benefit Delays In Tennessee

(Memphis)  “You can’t get through to nobody,” James Priddy said.

He has spent hours at his computer, hoping for an answer about the unemployment checks he started waiting on in January.

“They said they will get back to you in 14 to 21 days. Here it is almost May and I haven’t heard back from Tennessee Unemployment yet,” Priddy said.

The construction electrician was laid off twice this year, and says getting unemployment is like pulling teeth.

The computer system and phone line he’s supposed to use are plagued with problems.

“I can’t get through to anybody, can’t talk to anybody,” he said.

He’s not alone.

Plenty of people say they too have gotten no response and in some cases no payment since the Unemployment Offices moved from being in communities to being internet- and phone-based.

State officials have repeatedly told WREG the new system is better and more efficient, and that people would be able to maneuver it, but frustrated filers tell a different story.

So WREG went to Nashville for answers.

Linda Davis is administrator of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Work Force Development and admitted problems.

“With our antiquated technology, we are running a 42-year-old main frame system. It has bits and pieces every time we modify a  program, something else goes wrong,” Davis said.

The state went to a new computer system the first of the year, but it wasn’t efficient and actually had several unemployment agents unknowingly working on the  same complaints.

“These kinds of things escalated out of control,” Davis said.

That led to more delays.

So now the department is switching to another computer system that’s suppose to allow users to stay on top of their unemployment claims step-by-step, and agents won’t have to do things manually.

“This will be much much easier. We expect our process time to be reduced greatly,” Davis said.

Still,  it will take two years for the new system to be fully operational.

In the meantime, Davis says they have made other tweaks to increase response time.

A new ticketing system will eliminate duplicate processing and allow agents to respond in three to five days of being contacted.

Instead of being locked out of computer filings, customers will be able to reset their own personal identification number.

She says it’s already making a difference.

“Back in January, we were receiving approximately 38,000 calls a day. This month we are down to 13,000 calls a day,” Davis said.

Davis stands by the decision to close walk-in offices around the state.

She says even in Memphis, they found most people weren’t using them.

Out of 38,000 statewide claims a month, only 2,000 were walk-ins.

“It’s strictly a fiscal funding issue. It’s a federally funded program and monies just were not there to pay for employees at all the career centers to handle the walk-in volume,” says Davis.

We asked Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam about the ongoing problems.

“Since January, if you look at the problems, the numbers have dramatically improved since last year, when the audit was done. Again is it where we would like it be, it’s not, but we are making progress,” Haslam said.

For those waiting on their unemployment checks, it’s the wait that’s the worst.

“You are worried about taking care your family. You are worried about paying your bills,” Priddy said.

By law, the state is supposed to pay your unemployment claims within 21 days of them being filed.

Tennessee says only about 72 percent of its claims are paid within that time frame, but they say the new system, when it’s running, will improve those numbers.

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