By ADRIAN SAINZ and TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — More than 29,000 people filed new unemployment claims in Tennessee last week, bringing the number of jobless residents who have sought benefits to more than a half-million stemming from the shutdown of businesses during the response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
The Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development said Thursday that more than $294 million in unemployment benefits was paid during the week ending Saturday. Of that total, more than $228 million came 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 department said.
The rest of the money came from a trust fund used by the state to pay unemployment benefits, the labor department said.
Last week's new claims showed a drop from previous weeks. Still, the overall number of Tennessee residents seeking unemployment benefits has surged to more than 503,000 since cities, counties and the state issued orders closing nonessential businesses in March. Only about 2,700 people in Tennessee filed for unemployment benefits for the week ending March 14, before the mass response to the virus outbreak
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.
Tennessee counties have begun a gradual process of reopening businesses. Restaurants, retail stores, gyms, barber shops, beauty salons and other businesses are welcoming customers under guidelines from Gov. Bill Lee's office and city and county officials.
The unemployment filing process in Tennessee continues to frustrate many who have been laid off, or furloughed, or have seen sources of income dry up.
Sam Persons is a Nashville bass player who was playing regular shows around town before the pandemic. He applied for unemployment on March 22, shortly after Nashville shut down its clubs to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, but he still hasn't received a dime, Persons said.
"I've called thousands of times. I got one guy, once, finally," Persons said in a Monday phone interview. "He said everything was fine, and I should see some movement on my end in a couple of days."
That was more than a week ago.
With zero income, Persons says he isn't able to pay his bills. He's had to defer payments on his credit cards and truck. His wife is retired and gets a small stipend from social security, but it's not enough to support them.
Persons says his options for earning money before live music is allowed again are few.
"I don't have a home studio, and nobody wants to sit around and watch me play bass on the internet," he said.
Labor department spokesman Chris Cannon 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.
Cannon said Thursday that Tennessee plans to utilize part of its federal CARES Act funding to supplement the state's unemployment trust fund.
A portion of the state's $2.6 billion allotment will go toward keeping the trust fund solvent and from falling below the $1 billion mark, which would necessitate a tax increase for employers, Cannon said in an email.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.