NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development (TDLWD) Commissioner Jeff McCord says unemployment fraud and the volume of claims are the two biggest setbacks to processing claims faster.
It was our first one-on-one interview with commissioner McCord since the pandemic began, so naturally, we had several questions. None more pressing than finding out why it was taking weeks and in some cases months to process certain unemployment claims.
McCord started by first offering context for what we saw over the last year and this past month. Over 2020, we had more than one million people file for unemployment insurance. Many of those same people qualified for extended benefits through the new federal program signed in January. At the same time, we had seasonal workers now applying for unemployment benefits once those jobs dried up in December.
We asked McCord if he felt Tennessee was prepared for a new unemployment program and he said, “it was a struggle for everyone.”
With details of this new program arriving last minute, McCord said it took TDLWD time to work through these new guidelines from the US Dept. of Labor. One of those changes included a more focused approach to fraud prevention.
“You have to be more intentional about every claim and not make assumptions about claims and that limits automation,” McCord said.
TDLWD officials have long said that there are no signs of widespread fraud in Tennessee and to date, their servers have not been compromised. Instead, they say it’s more likely claimant's personal information may have been stolen elsewhere and used to apply or certify a claim. We’ve seen cases where people like Lesley Albert of Nashville, had thieves use her identity to claim benefits. They changed her bank account information, leaving Albert to this day waiting for an adjudicator to sort out the issue.
“We have made some strides to account for the fraud and still speed up the claims process and I think you’ll begin to see that over the next few weeks,” McCord said.
We shared our interview of commissioner McCord with Moneka Leavell who tells us that for the last 48 weeks she’s seen only one payment.
“He’s speaking for his people. I get it. But when you have people on this end, you don’t get it,” Leavell said.
That’s not to say Leavell doesn’t understand why having to scrutinize each claim would delay the process. Her concern is that it doesn’t explain why people like her have been waiting all this time.
If there is an issue with her claim, Leavell says it makes more sense to hear from an adjudicator than have to call in as often as she does for an update. TDLWD estimates that they get more than 40,000 calls daily and on busy days, that number exceeds 100,000.
“When I say I call every day, I call every day, so if I were them I would put a flag on it. If I see it’s 48 weeks, I know whoever is on the other end sees it as well,” Leavell said.
If the issue is having enough people to man the phones and process claims, Leavell says that should be the priority. We asked McCord who agrees they are understaffed even after hiring more than 500 new employees since the pandemic began.
He says the issue isn’t that we don’t have the money to pay new employees, but rather these employees must meet certain criteria that make it hard to hire just anyone.
“There are some hurdles we have to get through, that quite frankly we wish we didn’t get those people in faster,” McCord said.
For now, McCord says the staff has been working long hours to process what they can. He tells us to expect a drastic difference in the number of pending unemployment claims across the state in the coming weeks.
“We were looking at data the other day and the last ten months of 2020, the unemployment insurance department worked a combined 22 years of overtime. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s not that we aren’t giving it a full effort. It’s just a very challenging environment,” McCord said.