Unemployed caregiver seeks benefits as state continues through backlog of claims

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The coronavirus has forced a lot of couples to make hard decisions about their jobs, especially if they cannot work from home.

The wife of a quadriplegic left her job as a clerk more than half a year ago. Eligible for benefits, she filed for state unemployment compensation, but never received a dime… until she called WATE 6 On Your Side.

Since last July, money started getting tighter and tighter for the Cokers. They had to take out loans to keep them afloat while waiting for Mrs. Coker’s weekly state unemployment check.

Crystal Coker is her husband’s caregiver Charlie Coker is a quadriplegic, injured in a fall 10 years ago. Mrs. Coker worked at the Dollar Tree as a cashier in Powell until July of last year, just as the coronavirus was hitting a surge in East Tennessee.

“I left because my husband has chronic COPD and I didn’t want to bring Covid home to him. He has a real bad immune system,” Crystal Coker said.

“She was in contact with a lot of people, dealing with customers, touching the dirty money,” Charlie Coker said. “My immune system is down, stays down, I get sick real easy, real quick. She was just worried about me.”

Crystal says the manager at the store understood why she was leaving, a letter was written to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development in her support. Mrs. Coker applied and was approved for state unemployment benefits.

“Yes, I’ve got my card and everything,” she said. “I’ve completed the review and investigation — ‘your unemployment benefit have been approved.'”

Yet, for months they didn’t receive anything.  

“Nothing,” Crystal Coker said.

“We are falling behind on everything,” Charlie Coker said. “I get a disability check. I thank God for that. If it wasn’t for that, we’d be living under a bridge somewhere. That pays our rent, we have a little bit leftover. Then we make a decision for gas or pay on power.”

Most of Charlie’s disability check pays the rent on their small mobile home.

The state says its labor department in Nashville has handled over a million unemployment claims since the pandemic began almost a year ago. Extra people have been hired to handle phone calls and messages left by thousands waiting for their benefits.

“I’ve left emails, tried doing a live chat, and talked with one man and he told me I had to call the 1-844 number again,” Crystal Coker said.

“It has really put a hurting on us,” Charlie Coker said.

We contacted the labor department on Crystal’s behalf 10 days ago.

“The state wanted proof of my identity. They wanted my driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, and my marriage license,” Crystal Coker said, adding that the labor department needed the information — to prevent fraud.  Once sent off, she received her benefits.

Crystal not only received Tennessee unemployment benefits but also federal pandemic money. While the number of unemployment claims across Tennessee are dropping from a high of 325,000 in May 2020 to just under 50,000 today, the labor department said it continues to chip away at the backlog.

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