Out-of-work Tennesseans who are milking the unemployment insurance system may soon find their benefits cut off, and even be asked to repay the funds they have received.
The TN Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development is indicating a willingness to investigate claims of unemployment fraud more closely, and this week will begin sending letters to Tennessee’s unemployment claimants and employers to better educate them on the state’s jobless claim laws.
“The last year has been difficult, but life is returning to normal and now is a great time for you to return to the workforce,” the state begins in a message to claimants that began to be distributed on Friday.
Unemployment benefits have come under heightened scrutiny as many job openings — often entry-level jobs featuring relatively low wages — have remained unfilled amid prolonged unemployment supplements from the federal government.
At the height of the pandemic last year, Congress offered a $600 weekly supplement to states’ unemployment benefits. That supplement eventually expired, but Congress later approved a $300 weekly supplement, which remains in place through September.
In Tennessee, the maximum unemployment draw for laid-off workers is $275 per week. That means many out-of-work employees are currently drawing as much as $575 per week with the federal supplement added.
Although many Republicans — including President Donald Trump — initially supported the federal unemployment supplement, the continued use of the increased payouts has drawn increased criticism from congressional Republicans and a few Democrats as “help wanted” signs have become an increasingly common appearance.
In Scott County, multiple restaurants have reduced their hours of operation due to staffing issues. A social media post went viral over the weekend showing a photo of the Dollar General in Sevierville, Tenn., which temporarily closed its doors due to a lack of employees.
The Scott County Chamber of Commerce recently launched a jobs board on Facebook, using the social media platform to post job openings. There are currently dozens of available jobs in Scott County, and virtually every major employer is hiring. Statewide, there are nearly a quarter of a million unfilled jobs.
Several states, including South Carolina, are taking steps to stop paying the federal unemployment supplement before the increased benefits expire in September. However, Tennessee is not yet taking such a step.
In its letter to unemployment claimants, the state is offering assistance to update resumes, find job vacancies, and even find ways to pay for childcare, transportation and uniforms, though specifics aren’t included in the letter.
The letter goes on to point out that out-of-work employees “must be able and available to work” in order to continue receiving unemployment benefits. “If there is suitable work available, and an employer offers you a job, you are required to accept that offer,” the letter notes. It goes on to add: “If the Department finds you refused suitable work, we can stop your unemployment benefits and seek repayment for any benefits you received after refusing the job offer.”
The state offers several websites for unemployment claimants, including the Jobs4TN.gov website, which lists job openings across the state — currently numbering 240,000.
In a letter to employers, which will begin going out Monday, the Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development urges employers to report abuse of the unemployment benefits system.
“If you have an employee you laid off during the pandemic, but business has returned to the point where you can call them back, and they refuse to answer that call, the Department can investigate the reasons for that refusal,” the letter states. “If the Department determines they refuse to return to work, they could be deemed ineligible to continue receiving unemployment benefits.”
The Dept. of Labor also promises to use its staff to help employers investigate unemployment claimants who show interest in working for a company but neglect to show up for interviews or refuse a job offer. That’s a common trick used to abuse the unemployment system, which requires recertification each week by placing the onus on claimants to show they’re attempting to find a job. To skirt the requirements, laid-off workers will sometimes apply for jobs with no intentions of showing up for an interview or accepting an offer.