Department of Labor likely to rebuff call to waive unemployment certifications

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 23, 2020 12:50 PM CT | Published: April 23, 2020 12:43 PM CT

A House Democratic leader is calling for the governor to waive weekly unemployment certification for hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans to take the burden off the state’s claims system, which went offline for four hours at the start of the week.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development is likely to balk at the request, though, with Commissioner Jeff McCord saying the certifications are “essential” and mandated by the federal government.

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Yet House Minority Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville contends the governor has the power to “sweep away” legal requirements during an emergency and take steps to make sure people are receiving unemployment payments.

“We’re getting flooded with claims by people who have been waiting for weeks for benefits that are guaranteed by law, and we need to do everything we can to get this process streamlined. Obviously, no one anticipated this crisis, but we need to take steps to get these checks out the door to people who are unemployed for no fault of their own,” Stewart said Thursday, April 23, 2020.

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By Wednesday, the state had distributed benefits totaling $236 million to more than 210,000 people, including a $600 federal benefit and backpay for a week the state system wasn’t in place, according to Commissioner McCord. He projected the state would surpass 250,000 claims paid this week.

Still, the state has received 324,000 new unemployment claims since March 16, leaving nearly 114,000 without a payment.

Stewart sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Bill Lee urging him to waive the weekly certification requirement. He noted the Florida has taken that step to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

<strong>Mike Stewart</strong>

Mike Stewart

The state’s JOBS4TN website went down for four hours Monday, making it unavailable for the public until 2:30 p.m. while the state processed claims. The down time was caused by a vendor’s inability to handle the task before the start of the business day. The system is being upgraded to handle the increased load of claims.

Asked Thursday about Stewart’s request for a waiver, McCord said the state has already extended from two to five weeks the time allowed for people to become current on their certifications. He expressed skepticism about a waiver being approved.

“Weekly certifications are essential to the integrity of the unemployment insurance system and they are mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor,” McCord said in a statement. “In consultation with the Governor’s Office, the department takes all requests from lawmakers and the related legal requirements into consideration. Meanwhile, we will continue to focus our efforts on improving both systems and processes to handle the historic increase in unemployment claims volume Tennessee is experiencing.”

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McCord acknowledged in a Wednesday conference call with lawmakers the state has faced serious hurdles in the last month -- the scale of the claims, which includes delivering $600 in federal funds to recipients; the need to build a new system for federal benefits, such as 1099 filers who traditionally aren’t eligible; and an upgrade in the IT system to handle increased volume.

The system for 1099s and sole proprietors was not finished as of Wednesday, according to McCord.

“In terms of upgrading the system performance, we’ve no doubt strained under the strong increase in volume. We outgrew our first upgrade. We expect to make progress on another upgrade, a significant upgrade, here in the next couple of days,” McCord said.

The state started with 25 people fielding customer service calls when the crisis struck, then added 200 state employees before putting in two calls centers to push the number to 350 people handling calls, McCord said.

He expected claims for independent contractors to generate more calls but said: “When those problems become less, then our phone will become less and we can get back to customer service levels we’re accustomed to.”

The Governor’s Office did not respond Thursday morning to questions from The Daily Memphian about Stewart’s letter.

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Mike Stewart Jeff McCord COVID-19 unemployment benefits
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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