Tennessee is ranked one of the worst states in the country when it comes to making benefit payments in a timely manner. In fact, the Volunteer State is only ahead of two other states when it comes to timeliness of payments.
Tara Cook says she's never seen the state's unemployment benefits system this bad. And she would know. Her family owns an asphalt company in Estill Springs. Each year, she says she has to lay off construction workers during the winter, then she hires them back in the spring. She says her company has been doing that for 40 years.
During the time when her employees are not working, she wants to make sure they get their unemployment checks. This year, though, she told the Channel 4 I-Team she hadn't had much luck with that until we got involved.
Cook says only one of the 19 employees she laid off in December has received all of his permanent unemployment benefits in the weeks that have followed.
For months, the Channel 4 I-Team has been investigating delays and the backlog in the state's unemployment benefits system. We hear from frustrated jobseekers every day who tell us they try relentlessly to get through to file an unemployment claim both online and by phone with no luck.
Others tell us they're waiting far too long to get approved or paid.
"We've paid in about $45,000 last year alone in unemployment benefits because we are prepared. They prepare us to lay off our guys and have that money available, so that money is sitting somewhere because I have paid it in," said Cook.
According to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, Tennessee is only ahead of Massachusetts and Florida when it comes to timeliness of payments in less than 21 days.
Based on the latest numbers, 31 percent of claimants aren't paid within 21 days. By comparison, only five percent of claimants in Alabama are waiting for checks beyond 21 days.
The national average shows only 14 percent of claims were left outstanding beyond that 21 day threshold.
State Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, who sits on a senate committee that deals with unemployment issues, says that has to change.
"We're Tennessee. We like being at the top of the stack, not the bottom of the stack. And we're talking about caring for the most vulnerable people," Green said. "I think what we're going to do is talk with the other members of the committee and see if we need to step in to help."
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development would not talk with the Channel 4 I-Team on-camera for this story, but they told us by email those who are not paid within 21 days tend to have claims with issues that have yet to be resolved. We're told those cases are taking anywhere from six to nine weeks on average to reach decision.
Since the Channel 4 I-Team got involved with her complaint, Cook says she was told by the state the day our story was set to air that all 19 of her workers should receive all of their unemployment benefits by next week.
The Channel 4 I-Team has repeatedly asked the state labor department why Tennessee seems to be taking longer than almost every state in the country to make initial payments to jobseekers, but they will only say planned upgrades to the system will help alleviate delays.
However, in the past, the state has told us they can get as many as 20,000 calls a day into the claims center. Ideally, they would like to hire more people to answer those calls, but the state says they don't have the federal funding to do that.
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