Officials: Duplicate claims show Tennessee was not prepared for new unemployment program

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Posted at 6:57 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 21:54:01-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The delay in trying to make the federal extension program fit with the state’s current system is one reason officials say we now have more than 25,000 duplicate claims.

Chris Cannon of the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development (TDLWD) says the priority was to have the program in place as soon as possible. For the next couple of weeks, we noticed as many others did, the miscommunication coming from the Jobs4TN website. Some were told to re-apply when they were meant to certify their claims.

“We had all these extra claims come in that we weren’t ready to handle yet and that causes those duplicate claims,” Cannon said.

In total, Cannon says there are more than 90,000 pending unemployment claims like the one Ted Foti of Hendersonville is still waiting on.

This past Sunday made it 28 weeks for Foti who hasn’t seen a payment yet. Early in the process, Foti had to verify his identity with a copy of his birth certificate and wages. When he checks his status online, it still reads “unresolved issues.” We’ve reached out to the state on three separate occasions including Tuesday. Each time the answer has been the same. There are no issues with Foti’s account.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to lose my home over the deal and I don’t want to do that,” Foti said.

The good news for Foti is that claims are processed in the order they’re received. The bad news is the state says Foti has been added to the queue and they’re not sure when he can expect payment.

If a claim is more complicated than most, Tennessee has 77 “adjudicators'' who determine eligibility. When you call in, you're most likely speaking with any one of the more than 500 claim agents on staff. Claim agents can look through your claim and even process a simple claim to an extent.

“Keep in mind if you have a claim where there are no issues, no problems, doesn’t need adjudication, there are no markers on it, it can process and most do in eight days to two weeks,” Cannon said.

If the claim is more complicated or if there’s a dispute with your employer, then an adjudicator can take over. Say that an adjudicator was required for all 90,000 claims, each adjudicator would have 1,168 claims to review. That’s 38 claims per day, over a 30 day month. Cannon says there are performance goals for each adjudicator to meet, but there’s no quota. All while that’s happening, Cannon says staff continues to field 42,000 calls a day. On busy days, that number can reach closer to 100,000.

”There's just no way possible to answer that many calls in a single day. You have to hire thousands of people and that's just not feasible at this point. We understand the frustration. It frustrates us just as much as it frustrates the claimants. We know they're looking for information and we want to provide that information, but there's no way to get that number down," Cannon said.

That said, Cannon says we still need more claim agents and adjudicators. The state has already hired 400 more claim agents and 31 adjudicators since March. Trying to hire more adjudicators presents an issue of its own, as adjudicators are required to have more experience with claims than your typical claim agent. Cannon says they are promoting agents from within, but they continue to need more people to fill these jobs.

Last year TDLWD was loaned help from other departments to answer calls and process claims. We got an anonymous tip from someone claiming to work for TDLWD who said that at the beginning of January, all the extra help was turned away. We asked Cannon and he explained how this was out of TDLWD’s control.

“They were here for several months, but they have jobs at other departments and their bosses requested they come back. It wasn’t as if it was a permanent loan. They helped us out a while they could,” Cannon said.

While they continue to hire more staff, TDLWD plans to once again invest in upgrading their servers. Cannon says they’re also in the middle of a pilot program for text messages.

“We understand that there are ways we can communicate better and we’re working towards that. We’re in a pilot program right now for text messages. Soon a claimant will be able to opt into text message services and we can directly text message information,” Cannon said.