Waiting for the stimulus, jobless look to expanded unemployment relief

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 01, 2020 2:49 PM CT | Published: March 31, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Dan Haire woke up Sunday morning to find his first unemployment check posted to his bank account after a coronavirus-related layoff from The Rendezvous two weeks earlier.

At $275, it’s the maximum Tennessee’s unemployment insurance program pays under ordinary circumstances, and not nearly enough to offset Haire’s loss of income as a server at one of Memphis’ premier dining and tourist destinations.

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Haire, married with two children, looks forward to a heftier paycheck when the federal government starts chipping in $600 a week in unemployment benefits for him and millions of others sidelined by the deadly virus.

“The $275, that didn’t do anything,” said Haire, who has worked at The Rendezvous for 18 years. Once the additional $600 comes in, the total “will probably be three-quarters of my regular income,” said Haire, who relies on tips for most of his income.

Haire got his unemployment claim filed before a flood of applications inundated the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He said it was relatively hassle-free to work through the state’s online application process.

By last week, however, the application process had slowed because of the sheer number of people who have been hit by temporary layoffs. And the claims were expected to gain steam after the federal government on Friday signed off on a $2.2 trillion economic relief package that includes enhanced unemployment benefits.

The relief package is temporarily increasing unemployment benefits and extending them to the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors and others who wouldn’t normally qualify.

Tennessee officials haven’t said yet when the federally funded sweeteners would be reflected in the state’s application process.

A Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development spokesman said Monday details would be announced once the department determines how Tennessee will obtain the federal funding and implement the changes.

“The Department is working as quickly as possible to implement these changes so Tennesseans can start receiving these benefits,” spokesman Chris Cannon said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, received final approval in Congress Friday and was immediately signed into law by President Donald Trump.

It adds 13 weeks to Tennessee’s 26-week unemployment benefit and provides an additional $600 a week, on top of the state’s maximum benefit of $275, for up to four months ending July 31.

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(Basic unemployment benefits vary by state. Mississippi ranges from $30 to $235 a week for up to 26 weeks, and Arkansas, $81 to $451 a week for up to 25 weeks.)

The Tennessee Labor website, the preferred place to file unemployment applications, was recommending Sunday that applicants try again Monday or Tuesday if they were unable to certify on Sunday. The web dashboard for unemployment is at https://www.jobs4tn.gov/vosnet/Default.aspx.

People who don’t have access to the Internet or who need assistance may call 844-432-0969.

The state also rolled out an app to help unemployment recipients make required weekly check-ins.

App available for certifying weekly unemployment

Before providing options for continuing the call, a recorded message at that number suggested callers find a friend or family member with Internet access.

For the week ending March 21, the state reported Tennesseans had filed 39,096 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits, compared to 2,702 a week earlier. Nationally, there were 3 million new claims.

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A section of the CARES Act, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, temporarily broadens who qualifies for unemployment benefits to include self-employed, independent contractors and people who can’t work, for example, because child care is closed or they’re under doctor’s orders to stay home because of the virus.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applies to self-employed or independent contractors who are unemployed or partially unemployed as a result of COVID-19 and meet certain other conditions. Those conditions range from one’s place of employment being closed by COVID-19 to being unable to travel to a workplace because of a quarantine requirement.

The section doesn’t apply to people who can work from home or those receiving paid sick leave or other types of paid leave benefits.

Some lawyers with labor expertise have been recommending that people go ahead and file applications with the state and let the eligibility be sorted out later, after the stimulus package is implemented.

Cannon said persons who qualify for unemployment under the temporary expansion contained in the CARES Act, such as self-employed and freelancers, should wait until the state has a process in place to accept their applications.

“They should not apply now, they will show no earnings and the claim will not move forward. The department will announce to the media and online when they can start to apply for benefits,” Cannon said Monday, March 30.

Sam Morris, a Memphis attorney whose practice includes representing unions, said Congress has created a daunting task for state labor departments that administer unemployment insurance programs.

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“Congress has left to the states the whopping task of not only receiving, adjudicating, administering and paying millions of new unemployment claims for employees laid off as a result of coronavirus, but of essentially establishing a whole new claims system for the self-employed,” Morris said.

“Since those contractors and gig workers are now entitled to benefits, the states must establish a method to determine their eligibility, what ‘income’ or profits their benefits should be based on, a method to verify their status, and to pay them.

“If the explicit language of the statute is followed, these freelancers or contractors, who have been strangers to the unemployment system up until now, must be brought into the fold and paid just as if they had been employees,” Morris said.

Morris said he wasn’t impressed by the early results of Tennessee’s effort to ramp up claims processing by training and devoting more workers to handle claims and reducing walk-in services at American Job Centers.

“Our firm has already been receiving many calls about workers laid off who have been unsuccessful in logging into the unemployment system, let alone in actually filing a normal claim,” Morris said.

“Adding the self-employed to the avalanche of new claims from employees who are already in the system creates a foreboding task for state administrators, if the goal is to quickly get money to the unemployed,” Morris added.

Jeanice Blancett, a self-employed chef who makes soups, salads and other food items for sale at locations including Otherlands Coffee Shop in Midtown, said she was frustrated by lack of solid information about enhanced benefits.

Blancett checked out the Tennessee unemployment website after the stimulus package became law, and “It’s as if nothing has happened. There’s nothing about the self-employed.”

“I think it would be a service if on their home page they said ‘if you fit under one of these specialty categories, you should hold off until we update the site,’ ” Blancett said.

Blancett operated the natural food store Square Foods in Overton Square until the business was devastated by Hurricane Elvis, the Memphis straight-line wind event of 2003. The CARES Act is “so much better” in terms of a disaster response, she said.

But she’s concerned that many younger employees thrown out of work by coronavirus don’t know how to take advantage of relief efforts.

“I’m not starving and I don’t have to worry about getting kicked out of my house, but there are a lot of young people I run into — servers, baristas, people who park cars — who don’t know where to turn,” Blancett said.

At restaurants like The Rendezvous and Downtown’s McEwen’s on Monroe and The Peabody hotel, employers helped guide employees through the unemployment claim process after making the decision to temporarily reduce staff.

McEwen’s co-owner Bert Smythe said a couple of employees brought in laptops before closing March 20 and most of the 32 employees submitted unemployment applications then.

John Vergos said The Rendezvous has helped employees who didn’t have access to computers. About 125 people were laid off at the restaurant, a rib-shipping kitchen on North Main and from concessions at FedExForum. That left about a dozen people to fill pickup orders.

Haire said he and a co-worker filed claims together after they were sent home from The Rendezvous.

“I jumped on it as soon as I found out, to get the ball rolling,” Haire said.

His wife, Jonie Haire, still has her job as a manager at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which is doing takeout, but they’ve started looking for ways to defer payments on home and car loans, Haire said.

Whenever it comes, an extra $600 from the CARES Act will help them keep their heads above water longer, he said.

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March


unemployment CAREs Act enhanced unemployment gig economy self-employed
Wayne Risher

Wayne Risher

Business news reporter, 43-year veteran of print journalism, 35-year resident of Memphis, University of Georgia alumnus and proud father and spouse of University of Memphis graduates.


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