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Tennessee paid more than than $850M to unemployed in April
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By ADRIAN SAINZ Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Unemployed people in Tennessee received more than $850 million in benefits in April, state officials said, as the number of jobless surged with employers letting go hundreds of thousands of workers during the new coronavirus outbreak response.

Since mid-March, more than 474,000 Tennessee residents have sought unemployment benefits, the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development said Thursday. During the week ending last Saturday, more than 37,000 people filed new claims for state benefits and funds distributed under the federal CARES Act, the emergency assistance package created to deal with financial effects from the virus response.

Tennessee's labor department said unemployment benefits paid in April amounted to more than $852 million. More than $625 million came from federal funds, while the rest came from a trust fund used by the state to pay unemployment benefits, the department said.

The number of Tennessee residents seeking unemployment benefits has spiked 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.

Nationally, roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus forced companies to slash payrolls.

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 and trouble with the state's unemployment website. 

Tennessee counties have begun a gradual process of reopening businesses. Restaurants, retail stores, gyms, barber shops, beauty salons and other businesses are once again welcoming customers under guidelines from Gov. Bill Lee's office and city and county officials.

Linda Marshall was forced to close her Memphis hair salon in late March under stay-at-home orders issued in Shelby County. She applied for unemployment benefits a few days later and waited for more than a month to get her payments. 

Marshall, 50, had applied under the state's unemployment program and a federal program for self-employed workers put in place under the CARES Act. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits for self-employed people like Marshall.

Marshall said she had some savings in hand, so she was able to stay afloat financially by "pinching pennies." She had trouble getting in touch with the state unemployment office, spending an hour or more on hold when she called.

"You never could get a direct answer," Marshall said. "The system wasn't prepared for us."

Marshall felt like self-employed people were "being put on the back burner," she said.

"For me, there would be days I would wake up with a headache," she said.

This week, Marshall received more than $2,000 for four weeks of payments under the PUA program and the state's unemployment program.

Marshall said she felt relieved and excited when she received her payment because she could catch up on bills, including health insurance and salon rent. But the whole process was very stressful, she said.

"This has been a nightmare, because I work in direct contact with people," she said. "Every time you turn around, there's so much they're learning about this." 

Memphis allowed hair salons to reopen Wednesday, but Marshall said she is waiting until next week to resume seeing clients in order to be fully prepared in the way of COVID-19 testing for her and her workers, and cleaning her shop. 

Labor department spokesman Chris Cannon 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.

The department is working through claims "as quickly as possible to pay eligible claimants the benefits they need to makes ends meet during this health emergency," he said.