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.
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.
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."
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.
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."