“It is unprecedented, the state has never seen something like there where there was such an enormous increase in unemployment at such a fast pace,” said Chris Cannon, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor. “It is unprecedented, it is an enormous spike in unemployment and it just shows there is enormous need out there for folks to receive their unemployment benefits.”
Since March 14, about 324,000 Tennesseans have filed for unemployment benefits — representing about 9% of Tennessee’s estimated labor force. Nationwide, 22 million Americans, roughly 13% of the workforce, have filed for unemployment over the same timeframe.
“It just gives you a sense of awe,” said East Tennessee State University professor and economist Fred Mackara. “These are numbers that we never thought we would see.”
In an average week, Cannon said Tennessee provides $4 million in unemployment benefits to about 15,000 people. On Tuesday alone, the state doled out $94 million to 117,000 people, a number that includes $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation paid to approved claimants. Without the federal assistance included, the state still provided about $40 million in benefits.
“It’s an enormous amount of money and it’s an enormous amount of claims going out but it shows just how big of an impact the COVID-19 health emergency has had on the state of Tennessee,” Cannon said.
Mackara said the numbers signal just how much COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has impacted the economy.
“I think it says to me that the economic impact of the coronavirus is still a very large problem and will be for the foreseeable future even after we get to the point where we’re seeing less and less people getting sick,” Mackara said. “The unknown is what frightens me.
“I don’t know how we're going to get out of it, how quickly and what permanent damage it has done to the economy,” he continued.
Cannon said the department has added 300 people to help process claims and provide customer service, with about half of the department working on unemployment claims, adding that the state is “working as quickly as we possibly can” to get benefits to every eligible applicant, sometimes working 11- and 12-hour days.
“We are really working to get everything done as quickly as possible because we know these benefits are needed,” Cannon said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can, we really and truly are.”