The number of Tennesseans who are receiving unemployment from the state has ballooned over the past two months, up to nearly 320,000 people. But there are still tens of thousands more who are waiting for the state to give them an answer.
The path to getting a response is often filled with dropped calls, unanswered chat messages and desperate pleas on social media.
On May 11, Yvette Williams was panicking. It had been six weeks since her last day of work as a part-time cardiovascular sonographer in Memphis.
“I’m a single mother, two kids,” she says. “So I’m the only source of income. I have no income coming in.”
Williams had filed for unemployment at the end of March. But now, it felt like the system had failed her. She hadn’t gotten a response on her claim. When she called a state customer service line, she discovered that it limits the number of people who can be on hold at one time, and even then, it hangs up after about 10 minutes.
“Every morning I’m calling, calling. I mean, it seems like I’ve spent half of my day calling,” she says. “I’ve been working all my life, never asked for a handout or anything. So the time I needed help, I couldn’t get the help.”
So Williams turned to Twitter to see if other people were experiencing the same issues. They were, and moreover, they had suggestions: Some people had success by contacting lawmakers. Williams ended up getting through to state Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s office in Nashville. Two days later, her unemployment claim was approved.
If she hadn’t found out about that option, she says, “I’d still be on hold waiting.”
Williams is one of thousands of people who’ve turned to social media as a kind of grassroots unemployment help line. In a bustling Facebook group called TN Unemployment Nightmares, people swap advice about outstanding claims or commiserate about the online chat function, which seems to leave many people stranded in a virtual queue without ever talking to an agent.
They also share phone numbers or email addresses that seemed to lead to success — which is likely why some lawmakers now say they, too, are getting overloaded. In a press briefing last week, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said he’s passing along dozens of requests to the state every day.
“They have yet to receive a response from the state of Tennessee — or a substantive response, rather — and they have not received a single paycheck,” Clemmons said, while blasting Gov. Bill Lee and the head of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
‘Not Broken,’ But Overloaded
But the department continues to defend itself, pointing out that it has helped a record number of people during the pandemic and fielded more than 532,000 claims since March 14. That’s one claim for every 13 Tennesseans.
“To say the system is broken is just not accurate,” says department spokesman Chris Cannon. “It’s not broken. It’s overloaded.”
Cannon says they’ve added 50 staff members to the agency during the pandemic, up from the existing 360 adjudicators, administrative staff, call agents and other staffers. Plus, they’ve hired at least 450 contract workers — including some employees in other state departments — to man the call centers. These new workers are just now starting to take on some of the more complicated claims, though it’s taken them time to learn the complex, pandemic-era unemployment system.
Other improvements rolling out soon include a new voicemail system where people can leave messages instead of waiting on hold. And an improved virtual chat that can answer more of people’s basic questions.
“It’s just something that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, it takes planning. This virtual chat agent — I know they’ve been working on that for weeks now,” Cannon says. “Literally, we’re doing everything we possibly can.”
The call-waiting system that’s been maligned on social media for hanging up after 10 minutes, however, will likely stay the same. Cannon says that’s intentional: The state pays for every minute someone is on hold.
Overall, the state still has about 28,900 claims that are sitting unanswered. Nearly 18,000 have been pending longer than three weeks.
One unresolved claim is from Wendi Martin, a Memphis mother who lost her job as a bartender in March. At first, all seemed well. Her claim was approved, and she quickly received her first unemployment check.
And then, she received no further aid. For weeks.
A Galvanizing Force
It turns out, the system had accidentally deleted some information from her file. But even after fixing that issue, getting two lawmakers to submits tickets on her behalf, and calling the department’s customer service line “probably close to 1,000 times over the past five weeks,” she says she hasn’t gotten paid again.
“Our power’s on, that sort of thing, but my personal bills … it’s been over a month since I’ve been able to pay those. It’s kind of scary,” she says.
If there’s one bright spot in this frustrating moment, says University of Tennessee law professor Sherley Cruz, it’s that more people in the state are starting to care about these programs designed to help workers.
Cruz moved from Massachusetts last year, where she had been specializing in low-wage workers’ rights for about 15 years, and she says she was surprised by the relatively small number of groups in Tennessee that advocate for this issue, like worker centers and nonprofits fighting for fair wages.
So she describes this moment as a renaissance for labor issues. Cruz is part of a statewide employment law coalition that’s “made a commitment to work on this beyond COVID.”
“I think the more that we can do that — that we can empower the community to advocate for themselves, but also have this be an issue that we talk about constantly, and not just when there’s a high instance of unemployment — that’s when we’ll see change,” she says.
This experience has given Wendi Martin, the bartender, more empathy for people who have to go on unemployment. But it’s also given her a clear incentive to get off: She’s found a new job at a local bank starting next month.
“The thing is, I might actually get a paycheck from a new job that I found during this quarantine situation, [faster] than I will be getting a check from unemployment, which I filed for at the end of March,” she says. “And that’s just kind of crazy to me.”