TN, KY lawmakers draft bills to modernize struggling unemployment systems

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Posted at 9:16 PM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 22:38:55-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — New legislation intended to make the unemployment process more efficient may soon be a reality in both Tennessee and Kentucky.

These states share a border, but they also share many similarities in the legislation brought forward by Democrats this week. Lawmakers from both states say they want to expand unemployment benefits to include more job seekers.

In Kentucky, Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, Nima Kulkarni, and other house Dems told reporters on Wednesday that their legislation also intends to:

  • strengthen Kentucky’s unemployment insurance trust fund
  • maintain more in-person unemployment offices across the state
  • make it easier for employees to reduce staff hours rather than lay people off
  • allow new groups of people to qualify for unemployment insurance
  • HB 406 describes these goals in detail.

The first step is offering unemployment to more people by clarifying that part-time workers can seek similar part-time work and still be eligible for benefits. Other provisions included in standalone bills such as HB 78 offer benefits for those who had to leave their jobs for reasons other than COVID-19. That includes if you were a victim of domestic and dating violence or stalking and can no longer work in the same place.

“It’s a win for businesses, for workers, and our entire economy,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

TN State Rep. John Ray Clemmons says he was impressed with the work from KY lawmakers. He says he also gave some thought to the idea of expanding benefits to part-time workers.

“I tried to keep my claim as narrow as possible to keep that fiscal note down, but that’s a great idea. The more people who can qualify for unemployment benefits who are true, the better,” Clemmons said.

The legislation also includes raising the minimum weekly benefit amount each year to adjust for inflation. Lawmakers from both states will also work toward waiving any debts from unemployment overpayments caused by the state and not as a result of fraud.

Clemmons says his legislation is all about timing. He wants every claim reviewed within 14 days of making it to a claims agent at the Department of Labor & Workforce Development. If approved, his legislation would make it so payments appear by the following week.

“Unfortunately for Tennesseans, our governor doesn’t seem concerned about the working families or these issues. So I think Kentucky’s legislators are going to have a much better go of it this year with the reforms they are proposing,” Clemmons said.

Lawmakers say these bills are lessons we’ve learned the hard way, but they come from mistakes we have a chance of never repeating.

An audit of Kentucky’s unemployment systems found more than 400,000 emails had been archived and never responded to, meanwhile the state’s autopay feature sent payments without offering an opportunity for certifications. As a result, some claimants were paid less than what they could have earned had they submitted documentation of what they made the year prior.

Auditor Mike Harmon called the findings deeply concerning and said the state Office of Unemployment Insurance violated federal law, while also sacrificing the integrity of the unemployment program.

“It’s no coincidence that our fellow legislators in Kentucky are going through some of the same challenges that we are, but fortunately for Kentucky, they have an incredible governor who is focused on working families,” Clemmons said.

As of last week, Tennessee has more than 80,000 pending unemployment claims.