TN jobless program slashes backlog of claims

7:41 AM, Apr 15, 2013   |    comments
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G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean

Tennessee's unemployment insurance program has cut its backlog of claims awaiting decisions by more than half since reaching a high of about 28,000 claims in September, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development said last week.

The backlog of claims has averaged 13,629 so far this month, which has reduced the average wait time for a decision to as little as two weeks, down from a high of as many as 10 weeks in 2012, said department spokesman Jeff Hentschel.

A state audit released last month was highly critical of the state's handling of unemployment claims and found that the Department of Labor's backlog of claims had spiked to record levels, creating long delays for thousands of people who applied for unemployment benefits. It also found that the department's claims hotline routinely made callers wait on hold for hours, and that fewer than one-third of callers even got through to file their initial claims by phone.

The average wait time for a first check in 2013 has been as high as six weeks, Hentschel said, but has been steadily improving; claims still being processed averaged 16,000 in January.

In addition, Hentschel said claimants also should not be getting busy signals when they call the department's automated system to file or check on a claim, although there could be delays in reaching claims processors. The department has added phone lines to eliminate call logjams.

Adjudicators work overtime on claims

Calls were regularly not going through last year, one of the criticisms leveled against the department in a recent audit by the state Comptroller of the Treasury.

But since Thursday, Hentschel said, "One hundred percent of callers should be able to reach our (interactive voice system) self-service modules."

"Before, if claims staff was using all available phone lines to talk with claimants, access to the (automated system) was blocked," he said. "We know more than 80 percent of calls to the claims center are claimants checking the status of claims that were already filed, so more use and acceptance of the self-service system to check status is important to increase timely processing of claims."

Adjudicators are being offered overtime hours before and after the regular workday, as well as on weekends, to process the claims, Hentschel said.

"We give daily feedback to our claims staff," he said. "All supervisors are required to print a daily report each morning."

The additional phone lines are already helping, Hentschel said, noting that during the first week of January, 2,797 calls were answered, but that rose to a high of 4,674 in the week of March 15, and 4,098 last week.

Calls handled by the automated system rose from 3,707 in January to 6,952 in February and 13,290 in March, he said.

Rate hit record low in August 2012

Federal guidelines say that claims decisions should be made within 21 days, Hentschel said.

The U.S. Department of Labor's employment and training handbook says that 87 percent of a state labor department's unemployment checks for first-time claims should be sent out within two weeks. For more than a decade, Tennessee regularly eclipsed this standard, according to federal statistics reviewed by The Tennessean.

Between 1998 and 2009, the state met that federal standard for first-time claims in every month but one. But in January 2009, the rate fell to 77.1 percent getting checks within two weeks. Then in 2012, the rate at which the department sent out checks fell to record lows, bottoming out at 48 percent in August. The comptroller's audit attributed the delay to a mounting backlog, which totaled 10,968 claims still in the works at the end of August.

Auditors said that just 32 percent of the calls it reviewed were answered by someone in the Department of Labor's claims center, and the average wait for those who did get through was two hours.

Hentschel said the department is still working on its 90-day action plan required by the audit to address the backlog of claims, but that now, 30 days into that period, "progress is being made."

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