Recently, continuous changes to the issuance of unemployment benefit assistance have left both employers and employees with questions about the current state of benefits.  Many provisions of the federal CARES Act, including a 13-week extension on the maximum length of benefits and who is eligible for unemployment benefits, remain in effect through December 31, 2020.  New unemployment benefit claims are down across the State of Tennessee, and changing state and federal legislation continue to impact the amount of benefits received, how employers are charged, and the requirements to remain on benefits.  Our firm is here to assist on any questions you have regarding changes for unemployment benefits, advice for when to appeal a claim, or to represent you in an appeal hearing.

Updates for Claimants

As you are likely aware, the $600 per week federal supplemental benefit expired in July 2020.  For a short period of time, an executive order issued by President Trump authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) to administer additional assistance was in effect in Tennessee.  That order authorized FEMA to assist states with a supplemental $300 per week benefit to all claimants.  The additional federal aid through FEMA’s Lost Wages Supplemental Payment expired on September 5, 2020.  Claimants in Tennessee are thus only eligible up to the current applicable maximum state benefit amount, which is $275 per week.   A number of federal legislative proposals have arisen in recent months regarding supplemental benefits, which may change that amount moving forward.

Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tennessee Department of Labor temporarily suspended the work search requirement for claimants.  The work search requirement was re-implemented by TDOL on Sunday October 4, 2020, meaning most claimants will be required to submit weekly active work-searches to remain eligible for benefits to demonstrate that they remain unemployed by no fault of their own.  Claimants who have a definitive return to work date from a temporary layoff will not need to complete this requirement.  Some other exceptions apply to self-employed workers.  Information on the work search requirement is available at https://www.tn.gov/workforce/general-resources/news/2020/9/14/work-search-requirement-resumes-for-unemployment-claimants.html.

Updates for Employers

Most significantly for employers, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development has suspended Tennessee Code Annotated § 50-7-403(d), pursuant to recent state legislation authorizing such action.  Consequently, “base period” employers—or those employers that are not the separating employer but employed a claimant in one of the preceding four of the past five calendar quarters—will not be charged or attributed any amount to their tax account.  This suspension applies to all unemployment claims filed between March 15, 2020 and September 30, 2020.  Employers should keep this in mind in determining whether to appeal a claimant’s claim for unemployment benefits where they are not the separating employer; an appeal may waive their right to not be charged.  Overall, this suspension should reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employer’s tax rate and charges for benefits.

Finally, employers should keep in mind that employees may not refuse to return to work when recalled.  Unless the employee meets specific CARES Act qualifications as an exception, the employer should submit a work refusal form to the Tennessee Department of Labor.  More information on refusal to return to work is available at https://www.tn.gov/workforce/covid-19/faq/returntowork.html.

Changes and updates are ongoing, and employers and claimants alike should consult the Tennessee Department of Labor website to stay current.

If you have questions about this topic, please contact:

Sarah E. Stuart

sstuart [at] bpjlaw [dot] com

901.524.5107