Unemployment benefits ‘end’ before beginning for self-employed man

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Since the pandemic hit and unemployment benefits became available, thousands of Tennesseans have waited months to receive a check.

The state Department of Labor & Workforce Development added extra staff to handle the unprecedented number of people filing claims and the state says catching up takes time.

A self-employed subcontractor waiting on his benefits tells WATE 6 On Your Side’s Don Dare about a message he received recently from the state about his benefits.

The note came from the labor department addressed to Barry Lawson. It says because he filed for unemployment and continues to certify, his benefits will be ending Nov. 7. When we first met him nearly two weeks ago, he was waiting on his benefits — and still is.

Since mid-September, Barry Lawson has been living at a Knoxville motel. As a self-employed tile installer he lost his job because of the pandemic. He filed for state and federal COVID-19 unemployment benefits in August.

“When I call them, they tell me it’s in progress,” Barry Lawson said.

Barry says he’s registered weekly for unemployment on the state labor department’s website. With no job or income, he lost his apartment. Then, his mother helped and paid for his stay at a motel.

“If it wasn’t for my mom, I’d been living down at the Mission. She took out a credit card for me,” Barry Lawson said.

Barry said he’ll pay back his mother once he gets his unemployment check but it hasn’t arrived.

Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development fights fraud, but it slows the process down

In Nashville, the state told us its reviewers at the labor department look more closely at claims filed by self-employed workers in an an effort to crack down on fraud. As a result the approval process is slow for those filers.

“I understand that. But, it’s been nine weeks now. Every time I call they say give us two weeks,” Barry Lawson said. He finally spoke with someone at the labor department, who told him, “‘well I’ve looked at your claim, everything looks good. It’s going to be reviewed.'”

We interviewed Barry nearly two weeks ago.

“The good news is I was able to receive my unemployment. I had been out of work since March 10,” Kathryn Bunch said.

We reported last week how Kathryn Bunch — she’s also a self employed worker — finally received her benefits after we contacted the state. Her claim had been delayed due to the careful examination of her self-employed status.    

Earlier this week,  Barry Lawson received an email from the state Department of Labor.

“I finally got a response after ten weeks. The response is ‘your benefits are ending.’ I’m like, ‘what benefits?’ I haven’t received anything yet. I’ve never had to depend on the government, anything like this in my entire life, never.. I’d rather be working, I’ve always worked,” Barry Lawson said.

He read that short message from the state.

You are receiving this message because you filed for unemployment insurance this calendar year. If you are still certifying each week for a federal unemployment program, your benefits are ending, or could end soon.

We asked the state about the delay in Mr. Lawson’s benefits. We were told: This is one of those claims that will take time because we had to wait for wages from Georgia where Mr. Lawson worked last year and now it needs to go through the adjudication process in Tennessee.

“I’m in a hole. Can’t get out of it, Monday, this Monday, I’ll be homeless. This is my last week here,” Barry Lawson said.

The issue for self-employed workers seeking employment benefits is, they have to send a copy of their tax form to the state. Since Mr. Lawson not only worked in Tennessee, but also in Georgia, the verification process is very slow. To speed things up, he plans to immediately send to Nashville those employment documents when he worked in Georgia.

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