House Democrats call for unemployment protection as state returns to work

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 4:35 PM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 4:35 PM CT

Tennessee’s House Democrats urged Gov. Bill Lee’s administration Wednesday, April 29, to reverse policy and ensure people scared to go back to work during the COVID-19 pandemic can continue to receive unemployment.

“As Democrats, we do understand the state needs to open up, and we do understand there’s a need for businesses to open up and we do need to get back to life. But we do not want one life to be put in peril for the state to open back up,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said Wednesday in an online press conference.

Local case rate slows slightly but bigger question looms over data

<strong>State Rep. </strong><br /><strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

State Rep.
Antonio Parkinson

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, contended the state needs “clarity” in the reopening of businesses, which is happening in 89 of 95 counties statewide. Shelby, Davidson and other larger counties are being given leeway to open at their own discretion.

Democrats made their point after Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commission Jeff McCord said Tuesday people laid off during the crisis would not be able to keep their unemployment benefits just because they’re afraid of getting COVID-19.

“If you are offered a job and if your employer opens back up, then you stand a chance of losing those benefits if you don’t have a clear (health) reason not to go back,” McCord said during the governor’s Tuesday press conference.

Democrats argue McCord made that statement even though he said April 22 that people can “still collect unemployment if they are afraid to return to work.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor website says: “Voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about COVID-19 does not make you eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.”

Those types of contradictions show the state needs “clarity in messaging,” better protection for Tennessee residents and continued benefits for small business owners and workers until the pandemic winds down, said the Democrats, who are at a 74-26 disadvantage in the House.

“There’s been a lot of citizens out there across Tennessee who’ve lost friends and family members,” state Rep. Dwayne Thompson, a Cordova Democrat, said. “They should not be required or forced to go back to work just to put food on the table.”

COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Shelby County, and political leaders have declined to set a date for returning, even though they’ve put together a schedule for business re-openings based on 14-day intervals of improved data. In fact, county leaders were set to jumpstart the local economy early this week until case numbers skyrocketed over the weekend.

Across the state, nevertheless, Lee has opened restaurants and retail stores at 50% capacity with social distancing and hygiene guidelines. Gyms and hospitals are set to open Friday after a “safer at home” order expires Thursday night. Those also will have their own set of guidelines to follow, and hospitals are making their plans based on community needs.

Barber shops, salons and massage therapy shops initially were set to open May 29 under an order Gov. Lee signed Tuesday, but he told legislators in a Wednesday conference call they would be allowed to open May 6.

The openings are only for 89 rural and suburban counties and don’t affect Shelby, Davidson, Madison, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties, which have health departments separate from the state Department of Health.

Lee said Tuesday he doesn’t expect to force Shelby County leaders to set a time frame for reopening the economy and isn’t concerned about possible confusion.

But while House Democrats say the Lee Administration needs to be clear about its orders and plans, they say they agree with Shelby County and Memphis leaders’ decision to hold off on a firm time frame and, instead, depend on improved data to make decisions.

Parkinson pointed out numbers are COVID-19 case numbers are “trending up” in Shelby County and said he believes it would be difficult to set a business opening date.

“I think we’re in decent shape based on the decisions they’re making,” Parkinson said.

He added clearer messages also need to be sent to Shelby County residents about the importance of social distancing, because many aren’t staying far enough apart.


Antonio Parkinson Dwayne Thompson Bill Lee Jeff McCord
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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