State says they've made progress, but many still waiting on unem - WSMV News 4

State says they've made progress, but many still waiting on unemployment benefits

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

There is new information on the system upgrade causing delays in unemployment benefits for thousands of people in Tennessee.

Wait times have been far behind federal guidelines since the upgrade last spring.

During the Channel 4 I-Team’s investigation in September, we were told things would be better by November.

The I- Team’s Lindsay Bramson went back to the Department of Labor to see what progress has been made.

When the I-Team sat down with the commissioner in September, he said he expected to be out of what he called "a hole" in just a few weeks or a couple months, at maximum. But two months later the I -Team has learned some people are still waiting several months to get paid.

Job searching for Melissa Dixon has become a full-time job in itself. She has been at it since she lost her job back in September.

"This totally blindsided everyone,” Dixon said.

The first thing she did was file for unemployment, but she never thought she'd still be waiting to get paid nine weeks later.

“The website will tell you 21 days to get approved. It’s been well over the 21 days,” Dixon said.

She remembers the I-Team’s story from September when Commissioner Burns Phillips was asked what he would do if he didn’t get a check for eight week.

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

Dixon saw that and wondered how you prepare for losing your job when you have no idea it's coming.

During that same interview, Phillips also said he expects to be out of this hole in weeks or certainly a month or two. He then went on to say the department was processing more than half of people’s claims within 21 days.

"The system is working. The grand majority of the people are being served,” Phillips said.

The I-Team went back last week to see what kind of progress has been made.

Two months later, it’s improving. But more than half the number of people filing for unemployment are still waiting longer than three weeks, in some cases, just to find out if they've been approved.

“People are frustrated. Do you understand why they're frustrated?” Bramson asked.

“Sure, we're frustrated too,” Phillips replied.

The commissioner said what they're doing is chipping away at the backlog, going from 20,000 claims in September to 12,000 now. That backlog is why Phillips says thousands of people are still waiting to get paid.

Two months ago, the number of new claims taking longer than three weeks was 11,000. It is now down to 6,000.

The I-Team asked Phillips in our last interview about the timing of the system upgrade, which was back in May and was supposed to process people’s claims faster.

“Did it go live before it was ready?” Bramson asked.

“I don't think so,” Phillips said.

But last week, Phillips said, “If we had the information that we have today … we might have delayed it some.”

“So you admit you maybe jumped the gun a little bit on that?” Bramson asked.

“I admit we made a decision based on the information that we were provided,” Phillips said.

The department of labor now has a specialized team whose only job is to work with the vendor, Geographic Solutions, to get through that backlog and get people paid faster.

“It's another indication of what we're trying to do as a department to solve this issue,” Phillips said.

Frustrated job-seekers are even going to the governor’s office, which has received nearly 500 complaints since May.

The I- Team has also uncovered information regarding three employees who were responsible for implementing the new system in May but then retired in July. When we asked the commissioner why, he refused to give any further details.

"Anything that happens in this department, I own,” Phillips said.

Deputy Commissioner Dustin Swayne is in charge of the team created to enhance the system and make it more effective. He is trying to get things back to 87 percent, which is what the federal government requires.

“Do you feel bad for people? Many of them who are waiting two or three months to just find out whether they've been approved?” Bramson asked.

“Certainly,” Swayne said. “It’s not where we want to be right now but we're doing the best we can with the resources we have to make this system better.”

"Oh, palm in your forehead again,” Dixon said. “Here we go. It’s just getting ridiculous at this point.”

The same day the I-Team interviewed Dixon, she received an email telling her she had finally been approved.

"There should've been some due diligence and some testing done on another system before they went live,” Dixon said.

Commissioner Phillips said they hope to eliminate that backlog by Christmas, which would then help process new claims faster. Once that backlog is gone, most claims should be filed within three weeks, according to the commissioner.

The I-Team will check back in to see where things stand.

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