New system has Tennesseans waiting months to receive unemploymen - WSMV News 4

New system has Tennesseans waiting months to receive unemployment benefits

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Earlier this year, millions of tax dollars were spent to upgrade a system to speed up how quickly Tennesseans can get unemployment benefits.

But a Channel 4 I-Team investigation found months after that upgrade, wait times are still far behind federal guidelines.

After this upgrade was implemented, the I-Team still received calls from the unemployed, saying they couldn't get answers as to why it was still taking months to get benefits.

The I-Team had one question for the commissioner: could he wait that long for a paycheck?

Chasta Brewer is currently unemployed.

"I got a house note, I got all my bills, I got my daughter,” Brewer said.

When Brewer, a single mother, lost her job in June, she turned to the state for help. That’s when the waiting began.

"What’s going on? Where are the people that work there?” Brewer asked.

While the state's website says it typically takes 21 days to process individual unemployment claims in seasonal peaks it can take up to six weeks, an I-Team investigation found people waiting two months to receive that first deposit.

Brewer said when she tried to call to ask for an update on her case, she couldn’t get a live person on the phone. All she could do was leave a message.

"I mean I’ve called numerous times and nobody picks up at all,” she said.

She even emailed on week eight verifying that she was still job searching, writing, “I have certified for eight weeks now with no payments and would really like to know what's going on.”

This kind of delay comes after an $11 million system upgrade to the Department of Labor's 43-year-old computer system in May. More than four months later, why are people still waiting months for financial help?

The I-Team’s Lindsay Bramson spoke to Department of Labor Commissioner Burns Phillips.

“Do you think eight weeks is acceptable?” Bramson asked.

“It’s not acceptable to me. We want to get back up into the 97th percentile, and we will,” Phillips replied.

But right now the state isn't at 97 percent. In fact, they’re far from it.

While Phillips said 59 percent of claims are getting approved within 21 days, that still leaves 41 percent of people waiting longer than three weeks.

Tamela Ensrud was on her fifth week of waiting when the I-Team spoke to her.

“It should be quicker because you don't know people’s situations,” she said.

Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, is the vice chair of the legislative committee that deals with unemployment issues. We interviewed him in 2014 when the I-Team uncovered major backlogs in unemployment cases. Two years later, he’s growing weary of the delays.

"These are people who really need this help. And 41 percent greater than 21 days, it really is unacceptable,” Green said. “I think the department is making the right adjustments, we just need improvement faster.”

"With the old system, we had taken it from 40 percent to 97 percent, and we'll do the same with this one. But anytime you replace a 43-year-old program, you're going to have some issues,” Phillips said.

Phillips said with any major computer upgrade, there are always kinks to work out. While he said it's working, he admits it could be better.

“What if you didn’t get a check for eight weeks?” Bramson asked the commissioner.

“I would hope I saved some money prior to that so I could withstand that kind of absence from a paycheck,” Phillips said.

Brewer finally received her benefits after eight weeks. After the I-Team interviewed Ensrud, she also received hers.

The Department of Labor told the I-Team they plan to hire several more part-time employees to help field calls. They also tell me they're sending teams to the vendor’s corporate office in Florida to help work out all the kinks.

Phillips said he expects to have things back in that 97th percentile about in the next two months.

The I-Team has requested an interview two months from now to follow up with him to see if that's the case.

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