Aug. 19, 2020 – Knoxville News Sentinel by Vincent Gabriel
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons has been taking calls, emails and social media messages since the start of the pandemic from desperate Tennesseans struggling with the unemployment system.
“I haven’t slept in five months because I remember every one of them,” the Nashville Democrat said.
“People across the state aren’t even able to put food on the table; they were being kicked out of their apartments,” he said, recounting the days he started filing claims at 9 a.m. and finished between 5 and 6 at night. “They were emailing me from the McDonald’s parking lot because that’s the only place they could get internet service.”
In the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic shutdown, over 30,000 Tennesseans contacted their state and congressional representatives for help filing for unemployment. Legislators and their staffers had so many requests that some worked full-time to flag unemployment cases for special help from the Tennessee Department of Labor.
The legislators who processed the most help requests are state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville (3,871); Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (1,094); state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville (1,082); U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville (962); and state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (769). A Knox News public records request to the Tennessee Department of Labor revealed which legislators helped with the highest number of unemployment cases.
“I might be in the political superminority, here but we all have a duty to serve the people of Tennessee,” said Clemmons. “As soon as I started receiving unemployment emails I just started handling them all, trying to process every one the day it was received.”
Clemmons also said he has no intention of stopping any time soon. He and other legislators said they have continued to file help requests throughout August.
“I reminded people that there is no shame in looking to the government to do it’s job.” said Clemmons, “Unemployment is not a handout. It is the people of Tennessee’s money.”
The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic cost hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans their jobs. The statewide unemployment rate surged between March and April from 3.5% to 15%. Many rural counties like Perry, Warren, Cocke and Franklin topped 20%. Sevier County, home of the Smoky Mountains tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, had the worst unemployment in the state during April at 29%.
The unemployment insurance system was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of claims. On average, the state processes 15,000 claims a month. This April, over 299,000 Tennesseans filed for unemployment.
“You need to receive this kind of benefit as soon as possible while you try to seek other employment,” said Akbari, the state senator. “And in the face of the pandemic I think it’s even scarier because nobody knows what to expect, but they do know they still have bills to pay.”
Unemployment claimants faced long wait times and an unresponsive department. According to a Tennessean report, some people called more than 35 times a day only to reach prerecorded messages to call back later. Others stayed on hold for hours.
Some legislators, like congressman Burchhett, have staff in place for constituent services. But even his office had to change how staffers worked to prioritize the flood of calls.
“Everybody was all hands on deck,” said Burchett. “Our casework went up … (my staff) adapted and did great work.”
But others didn’t have the luxury. Many of the top legislators on the list are part-time state representatives who work largely alone or with part-time assistance.
“I handled the intake personally,” said Clemmons.
For several weeks during the height of the pandemic his assistant, Debra Webb, was on medical leave. When she returned, Webb was able to take on some of the followup work, making sure that people got the assistance Clemmons requested. Many of these requests came from outside of Clemmons’ Nashville district.
He had posted on Facebook about helping with unemployment and “I think it just caught like a wildfire and so I started getting emails from across the state of Tennessee.”
Knox News spoke to several legislators who all said they had experienced similar experiences to Clemmons. Early in the pandemic, toward the end of March and through April, constituents started contacting them day and night.
“People would contact my wife on Facebook,” said Burchett, “They would call from literally all over the state.”
“We don’t hunt for work in other districts but once they call I have a hard time turning people away,” he continued.
An April Facebook post by state Rep. Gloria Johnson described the situation with the Tennessee Department of Labor and instructed workers to call their legislators. Word quickly spread. Over the next few days, the post would get over 700 shares and 300 comments.
Akbari experienced the exact same thing.
“Someone put my name on Facebook so we started getting a significant amount (of requests) and we were committed to processing them even if they weren’t in our district,” she said.
She said a lot of people don’t know how to reach to their local elected officials.
“But when word gets out that this (one legislator) is helping then they will try in jump in. They will call and email.” Akbari said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on structural problems with the state’s unemployment system. In an interview with Knox News, the Sycamore Institute’s Policy Director Mandy Pellegrin explained that unemployment insurance benefits and taxes used to fund it had not been updated in 19 years.
“2001 was actually the last time that the maximum benefit was updated in state law to $275 per week,” Pellegrin said in a July interview. She explained that the benefit did not increase automatically for inflation or wages. “Prior to (2001), the state had updated it about every two years.”
That may change. The legislators told Knox News that they want to make sure that the resources of the state of Tennessee were available to its people. Akbari sits on the state Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee and heard testimony from the Tennessee Department of Labor before to the pandemic asking for funding to reform their processes.
“You had a process in place that already needed help,” said Akbari, “and then it was pushed past the end of its capacity.”
“I stressed to the governor that we need to make the resources available,” said Burchett, emphasizing the lack of state debt and large rainy day reserves.
While Clemmons was glad to help people individually, he sees the whole situation as an indictment of how the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled. He pointed to the fact that many people still had not received their benefits.
Knox News verified with a public records request that nine people had been waiting since March to have their claims reviewed, appealed or finalized. The numbers get bigger: 343 April claims, 6,283 May claims, 9,055 June claims and 8,674 July claims remained unresolved.
Within the period, 2,451 legislative help tickets had yet to be resolved.
“As we sit here today, this system is still failing the people of Tennessee,” Clemmons said. “That is nothing but a failure of leadership.”