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Roundup: 28,000 New Unemployment Claims in Tennessee; UT Weighs Three Scenarios for Fall Classes

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More than half a million Tennesseans have filed unemployment claims since mid-March

Another 28,000 people filed new unemployment claims in Tennessee last week, according to the latest report from the Tennessee Department of Labor. There have been 532,580 new unemployment claims since March 15.

But thousands of people are still waiting for checks. During a meeting Wednesday, Knoxville representative Gloria Johnson said she talks all day with unemployment applicants who are unable to reach a representative at the Department of Labor.

“They’re doing everything right, but they’re unemployed Tennesseeans who still haven’t received a check,” Johnson said. “Some of them going on nine weeks; they deserve their money.”

Paul Mohlman is a Knoxville resident who filed for unemployment two months ago. He said he has not received an update on his claim since March 26th and has been unable to contact anyone at the labor department. In the meantime, he said he’s run out of money to pay for gas and food.  

“It’s so incredibly frustrating, and the answers that come are vague and confusing,” Mohlman said. 

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus is hosting a virtual town hall Friday at noon to discuss unpaid unemployment claims. The meeting is being called "Tennessee Unemployment Nightmares" after a Facebook support group of the same name.

Tennessee Labor Department spokesman Chris Cannon wrote in an email, “We are trying to respond to literally tens of thousands of phone calls and emails each day as quickly as we possibly can.”

The Department of Labor has distributed almost $360 million in federal and state unemployment compensation since March 15th. 



Lawmakers advise those taking COVID-19 tests not to share their address

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators issued a statement encouraging all Tennesseeans to seek COVID-19 testing, but advising them not to provide their street addresses. This comes after the state's department of health offered local law enforcement agencies access to the COVID-19 patient database. The caucus has called on Governor Lee to end the data-sharing program. 


“Many Tennesseans remain reluctant to test for the COVID-19 virus, fearing that the state and county health departments will share the name and addresses of those citizens who test positive for the COVID-19 virus with outside agencies,” the legislators wrote. 


On April 9th, Governor Bill Lee sent a letter to local police stations offering access to the COVID-19 patient database. The letter was released by nonprofit news site Tennessee Lookout in early May.


Last week, the Knoxville Police Department opted out of the program, after participating for three weeks. However, shortly after KPD's announcement, Knox County Sheriff's Office confirmed they had not previously seen the email from the Governor's office, and opted into the program. KCSO spokesperson Kimberly Glen said the department did not discuss this decision with the Knox County Health Department. 


Knox County health director Martha Buchanan said during a press briefing that she has concerns about law enforcement having access to health data, but the COVID-19 patient database is managed at the state level. As for the county, Buchanan said her staff does not share additional data with the police. 


"We are not sharing any information with law enforcement except in very specific situations," Buchanan said. 


According to the signed memo between the state’s Department of Health and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, individuals are removed from the list 30 days after testing positive for COVID-19. Spokesperson Kimberly Glen said only Sheriff Spangler has access to the database. All Knox County Sheriff’s employees were sent a nondisclosure agreement about the patient database.

“KCSO will initially use the information for our Corrections division with regard to inmates coming into our facilities,” Glen said in an email. “Any other uses will be determined and approved by Sheriff Spangler.”


UT plans for different scenarios this fall

A UT task force of staff and faculty have spent the past month compiling a report that outlines key considerations for three possible scenarios in the fall semester.


The first scenario imagines a semester where students start August 19th with safety measures in place. The second plans for a sudden spike of COVID-19 cases mid-semester, and the third outlines a situation where students do not return to campus at all. 


Chancellor Donde Plowman announced on May 6 that UT will resume an on-campus experience this fall, implying scenario one or two in the task force's report is the plan. Plowman said in a statement she will identify the resources needed to carry out the task force’s recommendations in the coming weeks.