Tennesseans seeing first federal supplement to unemployment

Published 2:01 pm Thursday, April 16, 2020

By TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennesseans receiving unemployment benefits on Wednesday began seeing their first payments include a $600 federal supplement for those rendered newly jobless. Normal weekly benefits in Tennessee are $275.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee announced that he has requested that schools remain closed for the rest of the school year. Education officials had previously agreed to close all schools, per a prior recommendation from Lee, until April 24.
Andrea Larson, a former maitre d’ at a Nashville restaurant, said she is one of the people who got $875 deposited into her bank account Wednesday morning. “I’m grateful for the extra money,” she said in a text message. “I’m so happy I can pay my household bills this month.”
Many people are owed two weeks of the supplement, or $1,200, but only the first payments were going out Wednesday, said Chris Cannon, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He could not say how soon the retroactive payment for the week ending April 4 would be sent, only that it would be as soon as possible.
Tennessee had to reprogram its computers to be able to distribute the additional $600 after Congress approved the supplement, Cannon said. Under the federal CARES Act, freelancers and other nontraditional workers who lost work from the coronavirus also qualify for the $600 a week payment, but programmers are still working to add them to Tennessee’s unemployment system, Cannon said.
Tennesseans filed 116,141 new claims for the week ending April 4. Compare that to just 2,702 new claims filed for the week ending March 14.
While the state is waiting to increase its server capacity, it is making changes to its overwhelmed unemployment system to try to make it run more smoothly. For one thing, the department has begun taking the system offline for customers between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Central Time each day. Employees will use that time to process payments instead of doing it in the background while customers are trying to input claims during the day, Cannon said.
In addition, the state is going to start staggering the days when people can certify their unemployment claims for the week. Currently, nearly everyone on unemployment is trying to certify on Sunday. That’s the first day that people can certify for the previous week, and people who certify on Sunday get paid soonest. But many people have been unable to certify on Sundays, leading to frustration and confusion.
Also Wednesday, Lee’s office announced it will begin expanding testing for COVID-19 this weekend with the Tennessee National Guard setting up 15 drive-through testing sites across the state. The testing is free and available to anyone, regardless of symptoms.
“Our clinical understanding of COVID-19 is changing rapidly, and we need every Tennessean who isn’t feeling well, even outside of the traditional COVID-19 symptoms of cough, fever or difficulty breathing, to come out and get tested,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in a news release. A complete list of testing sites is available on the department’s website.
On school closures, Lee told reporters that he expects all schools to follow his recommendation and his administration will reach out to school districts that don’t.
“Children being out of school for such a long time has significant implications for a child’s wellbeing, and this poses a different kind of challenge for all of us, as communities and as a state,” said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “There is critical work ahead.”
As of Wednesday, Tennessee had recorded 135 deaths from COVID-19 with 6,079 people testing positive.
In other developments, Tennessee announced that its state parks will remain closed due to the ongoing threat of the coronavirus. The announcement Tuesday by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation keeps the 56 parks closed past the previously announced April 14 date to end the closures.
The Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association followed the governor’s announcement later Wednesday by announcing that the postponed basketball tournaments from March now are canceled along with all spring sports.
“This is an unprecedented time across our state and country, and we do not make this decision lightly,” the TSSAA said in a statement. “We thank all of the participants, their coaches, administrators, parents, and everyone else who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time, passion, and effort to high school athletics, especially these affected events.”
The TSSAA says the association looks forward to resuming high school athletics during the 2020-21 school year and will give information to schools about summer athletic activities in the near future.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.

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