MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — Tennessee delivered unemployment payments to more than 314,000 people last week, as the number of new jobless claims continued to run much higher than normal during the response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Stay-at-home orders from Gov. Bill Lee and city and county officials in mid-March led to business closures and hundreds of thousands of layoffs, as officials scrambled to stem the rise of COVID-19.
Businesses have begun to gradually reopen in recent weeks, and many workers have been able to return to their jobs. But the number of new weekly filings is still high, with some businesses remaining closed and employers cutting staff as they operate at a limited capacity due to social distancing rules.
More than 22,700 new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending Saturday, the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development said Thursday. That’s about 10 times the number of new claims filed the week before businesses starting closing, the unemployment report showed.
The 2,700 new claims filed the week ending March 14 is roughly the amount of new weekly claims received during a normal year, department spokesman Chris Cannon said.
More than $285 million in unemployment benefits was paid out last week in the form of federal funds distributed under the federal CARES Act, the emergency assistance package created to deal with financial effects from the virus response, the labor department said.
Tennessee usually depends on a trust fund to pay state unemployment benefits. But the state is using the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money for payments through June 30 to prevent the fund from falling below $1 billion, Cannon said.
A tax increase starts for employers if the fund sinks below $1 billion. The fund’s April balance was about $1.1 billion, Cannon said.
The process of filing for and receiving unemployment payouts has frustrated jobless Tennessee residents who’ve complained about waiting more than a month to receive benefits. Problems include employers who were slow to respond to claims, confusion about who can receive funds, trouble with the state’s unemployment website, and an inability to get a claims agent on the phone in a timely manner.
In Nashville, Oralia Lugo is still waiting for her first unemployment check.
Lugo has worked in the laundry at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for the past two years. Although she’s been out of work since early April, she hasn’t received either unemployment or food stamps.
Lugo applied for both and hasn’t been able to get answers as to why no check has arrived, she said.
“I’ve never asked for anything, and now that I ask, I get nothing,” she said in Spanish. “Oh well. There are other people who are worse off than me.”
Originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, Lugo has had U.S. residency since 2006, but she is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English. Her son, Julio Fernandez, who works for the nonprofit Jobs With Justice, said his mother’s lack of fluency with both English and computers may be hindering her ability to successfully navigate the state unemployment system.
“Many Latinos have that situation … There are a lot of barriers that make it harder for people,” Fernandez said.
Lugo said another son who lives with her is helping her with expenses. She also received the $1,200 stimulus check.
“This has also helped us survived, but it’s finished now. It didn’t last forever,” she said.
Cannon, the labor department spokesman, has said the agency can receive nearly 100,000 calls into its call centers on a single day. The department transferred more than 200 employees to unemployment processing tasks and hired several dozen more people to work as claim agents and in call centers, Cannon said.
The department’s website vendor installed new equipment to expand the site’s processing capacity and the department staggered its weekly certification system in mid-April to spread out demand on the system, Cannon said.
Tennessee reached its highest monthly unemployment rate ever in April, at 14.7%. The state’s highest seasonally adjusted rate had been 12.9%, which occurred in December 1982 and January 1983, the department said.
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Andrian Sainz and Travis Loller report for the Associated Press. Loller reported from Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo “Unemployment Insurance Claims Office” by Bytemarks. CC BY 2.0.