In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic changed the employment landscape in Tennessee for years to come. Thousands of people lost jobs overnight, as many businesses unexpectedly shuttered to control the spread of COVID-19. The act of collecting unemployment insurance (UI) benefits changed significantly with the addition of federal subsidies as unemployment became necessary for a wider swath of the population.
Tennessee UI and Eligibility
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDOL) provides weekly UI benefits to those who have lost their jobs. To be eligible, a worker must:
- Lose their job through no fault of their own.
- Be willing, able and available to look for work and take work when it becomes available.
- Have made a certain amount of money while formerly employed.
Applicants in Tennessee can file UI claims on the first day after losing their job or after their employer greatly reduces their work hours. The TDOL will gather information from the claimant and their employer to decide on that person's UI benefit eligibility under state law.
Base Period for UI Benefits in the State of Tennessee
In Tennessee, a worker seeking UI benefits must earn a minimum of $780.01 in each of two calendar quarters. This is the state's base period. The second-highest quarter must average over $900, or six times the weekly benefit amount. The state decides how much money the claimant will receive and how many weeks they'll receive it by using these calculations.
Tennessee's base period is the initial four calendar quarters of the last five quarters applicants complete before filing their claim. The state measures calendar quarters in three-month periods – January to March, April to June, July to September, and October to December.
Firings and Quitting Affect State Unemployment Benefits
An applicant fired from a job may or may not be entitled to get UI benefits. This decision depends on the circumstances of their firing. Those who lost a job because they lacked the skills to do it or weren't a good overall fit can still receive UI benefits.
However, if an employee commits misconduct, they are not eligible. In Tennessee, examples of misconduct include intentionally violating an employer's policies, frequent negligent behavior and other actions that don't reflect an employer's standards.
Applicants who quit their jobs generally do not receive UI benefits unless they had good cause to do so. Situations that exemplify good cause are abuse, sexual harassment or quitting to escape domestic violence. Another example is leaving a job to follow a relocating military spouse.
UI Benefit Amounts
The TDOL determines a claimant's weekly benefit amount based on previous earnings, with weekly benefits of between $30 and $275. These payments typically last for up to 26 weeks, but the state can extend this period in times of higher unemployment. The totals may also change if the federal government has programs in place to subsidize lost wages, as it has with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tennesseans can file claims in a number of ways – by phone, fax, email or online through the TDOL's UI portal. After filing an initial claim, the department will send out letters informing the applicant of their UI status, their benefit amount and the duration of the coverage.
Providing Information for UI Claims
Applicants should have information pertinent to their claim in hand before applying. Without it, they risk a delay in payments. The TDOL requires these items of personal information:
- Social Security number.
- Driver's license number.
- Contact information, including physical address, phone number and email address.
- Bank information for benefits via direct deposit.
- DD214 Member 4 form (applies only to those who served in the military in the past 18 months).
The TDOL also requires information about the applicant's former employer, including:
- Contact information of businesses employing the claimant in the 18 months before they filed a claim (including names, address, phone and fax numbers).
- Date of the claimant's last workday.
- Reason employment ended (layoff, quit or fired).
The CARES Act and UI Benefits
The federal government has helped unemployed people during the coronavirus pandemic through its CARES Act. Created in 2020, the law gave those individuals ordinarily ineligible for UI benefits the opportunity to collect them. It made Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) available to independent contractors, a group that doesn't usually receive UI benefits. Recipients get PUA until March 13, 2021, however, the federal government hopes to extend this.
Applicants may also receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), an additional 13 weeks of benefits for Tennesseans whose regular UI had ended. PEUC also ends on March 13, 2021, but the federal government hopes to extend it for an indeterminate time. Initially, the CARES Act provided an extra $600 a week to UI applicants; this ended on July 25, 2020. Congress may add another weekly amount to UI, PUA, and PEUC benefits after mid-March 2021, as much of the state's population has yet to go back to work.
Maintaining an Unemployment Claim
A claimant can keep getting UI benefits as long as they keep looking for work and are open to taking positions if they come along. An unemployed person must accept a suitable job, which means that it reasonably matches their qualifications and other aspects, namely pay and distance, typical of that industry. Tennessee expects UI recipients with more weeks of benefits to be more open to taking a job, even if it requires less skill or doesn't pay as much they would like.
Claimants must also search for work and apply for at least three positions per week while receiving benefits. The TDOL suggests keeping track of all job search activities as it may randomly ask UI recipients to verify that they looked for work. The TDOL may also contact potential employers for further verification.
Filing Weekly Certifications
When the unemployed person applies for benefits, they will receive two letters by standard mail or email from the TDOL. The first shows the amount of their UI benefits; the second shows the approval or denial of benefits. Once the person starts receiving benefits, they must look for work either on their own or through the state's employment website, Jobs4TN.gov.
The applicant must log in to an account they create on the TDOL website to certify for benefits weekly and to record their work searches at that time. Jobs4TN will auto-populate a claimant's work searches on TDOL's portal. Claimants receive a debit card within two weeks of applying for UI. They have the option of receiving benefits through direct deposit if they include their bank information in their initial application.
What to Do When Refusal Occurs
If the TDOL refuses an unemployed person's application, they can mail an appeal to Appeals Tribunal, 220 French Landing Drive, Nashville, TN 37243, or fax it to 615-741-8933. The Appeals Tribunal will make its decision and send it to the applicant, who has 15 days to respond from the time they receive it.
To appeal further, claimants must send a letter to the Office of Administrative Review, Legal Division, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 220 French Landing Drive, Nashville, TN 37243, or fax it to 615-741-8933. After that decision, if they still wish to appeal, they can do so by filing a judicial review petition with their county's chancery court.
Stopping or Pausing a UI Claim
If a claimant finds a job, they can end their benefits by simply stopping their certifications. A recipient should not wait until getting their first paycheck; they should stop claiming UI money as soon as an employer hires them. It is illegal to accept UI benefits and still earn wages. The applicant who ignores this must return overpayments to the state.
An applicant who reports earnings of more than their benefit amount will trigger the benefits to stop. Those who report less than the benefit amount will see a reduction in their payments, but will continue receiving them. A claimant must report any earnings while certifying for the week, even if they have yet to receive actual wages. Quitting a suitable job will not allow for the continuation of benefits.
Types of UI Overpayments
Overpayment of benefits occur for a number of reasons, but they mainly fall into two categories: fraud and nonfraud. Fraud occurs when a claimant withholds or gives false information to the TDOL to receive benefits they should not have. The claimant must return these payments to the TDOL, but the penalties won't end there. Fraud is an illegal act that comes with possible criminal prosecution.
Nonfraud resulting in an overpayment of benefits is not the claimant's fault; however, the responsibility to pay those benefits back is nevertheless on the claimant. The TDOL will consider waiving the payment if the unemployed person does not have the money to return the funds. An employer may contest a claimant who receives benefits. If it wins, the state could classify the person's benefits as an overpayment.
Setting Up a Repayment Plan
The Tennessee UI Recovery Unit will help a claimant set up a repayment plan when overpayment occurs. If it cannot create a repayment plan for the claimant, it will deduct the money from that person's federal tax refund or garnish their wages.
In the event of fraud, the UI Recovery Unit will not allow the claimant to receive UI benefits again until the period of benefit disqualification is over. The state also requires the completion of overpayments before they can apply again. Benefit repayments will include penalties and interest.
Penalties for UI Fraud
A person that fraudulently collects UI benefits faces severe penalties if they deliberately withhold or otherwise provide false information to start a claim, to continue collecting benefits or attempt an increase in benefits. Fraud is a felony that carries severe penalties. A claimant convicted of these charges faces a maximum fine of $3,000 and one to six years in prison.
Employers can also face fraud charges by avoiding paying into UI. This occurs if they misclassify employees as independent contractors, fail to report wages paid to employees, pay employees in cash or under the table, or attempt to manipulate rates. Anyone suspecting UI tax fraud committed by an employer should call 615-741-2346 or contact an Employer Accounts Office.
- NOLO: Collecting Unemployment Benefits in Tennessee
- TDOL: Employer Accounts Offices
- TDOL: Benefit Overpayments
- TDOL: Certify Weekly
- TDOL: Jobs4tn.gov
- TDOL: Employees
- TDOL: Do I Qualify for Unemployment Insurance?
- TDOL: Information We Need From You
- US Department of Labor: Unemployment Insurance Relief During COVID-19 Outbreak
- TDOL: What to expect after you file
- TDOL: Employers
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.