By Gail Kerr The Tennessean
Dawn Kingsley of Gallatin said she is at the "end of my rope."
Kingsley, who has a master's degree and has worked for health-care corporations for 25 years, was laid off July 6. She applied for unemployment and was approved. But a simple glitch on an online weekly certification form has caused the state not to pay her benefits.
No problem, right? She called the state number given on her form and held on through the lengthy instructions, only to hear: "We are unable to take your call now because of extremely high call volume. Please try your call later." Which she did. Dozens of times. Same result.
"It doesn't give you a chance to get into a queue or leave a voice mail," Kingsley said.
She sent an email on July 16, "and there's been no response to that at all." She decided to go to the office for help. There isn't one. She found a direct number for someone -- who couldn't help her.
"It is true," said Jeff Hentschel, communications director for the state Department of Labor. "There's a real problem. Clearly, we don't have enough people or telephone lines to accommodate all the calls."
The problems started in 2009, with the crushed economy putting people on the rolls. Adding to the volume right now: A lot of educators apply during the summer. Also, unemployment overall is high. And there are changes dealing with extended benefits that created a lot of questions.
"A lot of these are people who call multiple times," he said. "It gets harder and harder to catch up. It's like calling into a radio show during a contest."
The state, he said, is missing federal benchmarks on getting benefits to people in a timely manner, defined as getting payment to someone in 14 to 21 days. Tennessee hits that 80 percent of the time; the federal government wants 87 percent. There are 27 other states in the same boat.
But, Hentschel assured, if you email a question, you will eventually get an answer.
There are 100,000 Tennesseans on unemployment. The call center got 900,000 calls last month. Along with hiring, the state is looking at additional technology.
Hentschel urged applicants to go online to learn all the steps they must do and avoid calling on Mondays or Tuesdays. Check your claim status online rather than calling. He said he didn't blame Kingsley for her frustration.
Her situation should be simple to straighten out. She filed for unemployment the day she was laid off. She filled out her weekly certification online Monday, as instructed by the website. One of the questions is "Did you do any work for an employer including temporary, part-time or full-time" in the previous week? She did, of course, because she was laid off on a Friday. But that was enough to kick out her certification, even though her benefits were approved. And she cannot get anyone to help her.
"It's just frustrating," said the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 4, and a stepson. Her husband is a karate teacher. "I got mad. I've done everything they've instructed me to do. To have people struggle just to get a question answered is ridiculous."
State lawmakers say they want to create jobs. They have a half-billion dollars in surplus state revenue.
Hello. Buy more phones. And hire more people to answer them.
Gail Kerr's column runs on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. She can be reached at 615-259-8085 or