By Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Amid complaints about lengthy waits for Social Security disability benefits, congressional investigators say nearly 200 administrative judges have been rubber-stamping claims, approving billions of dollars in lifetime payments from the cash-strapped program.
Four of the judges defended their work at a combative congressional hearing Tuesday. They said they follow the law.
“I’ve seen their ailments, I’ve seen their pain, right in front of me,” Judge Gerald I. Krafsur of Kingsport, Tennessee, told the House Oversight Committee.
Krafsur approved 99 percent of the cases he decided from 2005 to 2013, according to a new report by the Republican staff of the Oversight Committee.
Lifetime benefits average about $300,000, according to the report, so Krafsur’s cases will lead to nearly $1.8 billion in benefits. Continue reading →
A lot of people who have lost their jobs still can’t file claims for unemployment benefits on the Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s system, according to WSMV-TV, which also had report on the problems earlier this year.
“We can get as many as 20,000 calls that come into the phone lines, and, at most, we can handle about half of those calls,” said department spokesman Jeff Hentschel.
Hentschel also said the system has been back-logged since the recession started, but they have made recent improvements like a new form on the website for the unemployed having trouble with the filing system.
“You click on that and fill out the form, and you’ll get a call within two days,” Hentschel said.
The problem is we heard a much different story from frustrated job seekers.
“The request form is working, but the response since your original story has been extraordinary. The department was initially receiving approximately 100 requests per day, which has recently peaked at 800 per day,” Hentschel said.
The department also adjusted the response time from two days to five to seven working days.
Narveson filed a claim back in August when he lost his job. He was able to find work since then but says his hours were recently cut. He wants to file a new claim but hasn’t been able to get through.
News release from state Department of Labor and Workforce Development:
NASHVILLE – The Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as “sequestration,” requires budget reductions to many federal programs, including the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program. To meet the federal requirement for sequestration for fiscal year 2014, Tennessee must reduce all federal EUC benefits paid on or after October 5, 2013, by 4.4 percent.
EUC claims that are mid-tier as of October 5, 2013, will continue at the same weekly amount until the current EUC tier ends. All new EUC claims and EUC claims that transition to a new tier as of the week ending October 5, 2013, or later, will be reduced by 4.4 percent.
Approximately 20,000 Tennessee claimants currently receiving EUC or transitioning into EUC from Tennessee Unemployment Compensation program will be affected. Benefits received under the state’s unemployment compensation program, generally the first 26 weeks (maximum) of available benefits, will not be reduced.
Claimants are being notified of the reduction during their weekly Internet or telephone certification.
A showdown over a new state law might end up costing thousands of Tennesseans their unemployment benefits, as the state is facing an impossible choice: either defy the law or put families at risk, according to WSMV-TV. The new law that had been set to take effect Monday is meant to cut payments to unemployment recipients who have children.
For now, the state pays the first 26 weeks of benefits, then the federal government pays an extra 37 weeks. But that money comes with strings attached. Namely, states can’t cut benefits.
“To find out, first of all, that the Republican Party was OK taking money away from children when their parents are unemployed was unbelievable and heartless,” said State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville.
People on unemployment who have children get an extra $15 a week per child, but state lawmakers passed a bill to eliminate that extra money.
The new law had been primed to go into effect Monday, but the Tennessee Department of Labor decided to hold off.
….According to federal law, if states make certain cuts to it unemployment benefits, they risk losing federal benefits entirely.
As of January, around 30,000 in Tennessee were receiving those federal benefits. The Department of Labor was all ready to enact the new law, even notifying people on the state website that the money was going away.
However, Director of Benefit Operations Mark Stiles sent out an email Friday, letting people know that they wouldn’t be cutting these benefits until the end of the year.
Democratic state lawmakers say it appears the Department of Labor is poised to break its own law to preserve those benefits.
…The Tennessee Department of Labor is now seeking guidance from the federal government about the impact of removing these dependent benefits.
Until they make a decision, the benefits stay.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor said the benefits are still active in Tennessee, but the case remains under review.
COLLEGEDALE, Tenn. (AP) — An East Tennessee city of fewer than 7,000 residents is poised to become the first municipality in the state to grant health care benefits to domestic partners.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/12shZN7 ), Collegedale City Commission members last week passed on first reading a plan to extend the same benefits married city workers receive to heterosexual and same-sex partners of city employees.
A consultant with the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service said that, if the commissioners approve the proposal again, Collegedale would become the first among Tennessee’s 346 cities to cover domestic partnerships.
Consultant Bonnie Jones said she is surprised one of the larger cities might not be the first.
“Collegedale is kind of on the cutting edge,” Jones said.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennesseans drawing unemployment benefits will soon lose a weekly $15-per-child allowance as part of a new law signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
The Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Friday that the change will help bolster the state unemployment trust fund, which could lead to a reduction in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.
According to the department’s projections, ending the allowance for dependent children in the budget year beginning July 1 will save the state $40 million per year.
Lawmakers created the child allowance in 2009 in order to qualify for a nearly $142 million federal stimulus grant. Now that that money had been spent, the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed a bill to end the program. It passed 66-23 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.
“That benefit was nice while it lasted and while it was being paid for with federal dollars,” said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, a main sponsor of the bill to make the benefit changes.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — State Labor Department officials say they have recouped about $15.3 million worth of fraudulently collected unemployment benefits by garnishing tax refunds and other federal payments to people who were not entitled to receive the assistance.
A scathing audit released earlier this year showed that the state overpaid $73 million in unemployment benefits. The overpayments were the result of both fraud and errors at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The audit was especially critical of the department’s method for recouping fraudulent benefits.
Acting Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips said in a statement that the ability to reclaim fraudulently collected unemployment benefits is critical to the business community. He said the department is focused on developing strategies to prevent people from wrongfully collecting the assistance.
A couple of observations scribbled in a notebook while lost in Legislatorland:
Unlike many Republicans in the Legislature, Gov. Bill Haslam has never been wildly enthusiastic about school vouchers. So his decision to yank his bill providing “opportunity scholarships” on a limited basis at a strategic moment, assuring that no legislation on the subject passes this year, has touched off a lot of speculation among those who are wildly enthusiastic.
Were they been bamboozled by a clever governor who has shown a knack for getting his way while avoiding controversy? Maybe so.
Recall that the state Senate passed a voucher bill in 2011, but Haslam appealed for a halt in the House. His request was granted, a task force set up to study the matter through last year. And, finally, hesitantly, he this year backed a bill that set up a program for providing a maximum of 5,000 vouchers in the first year to children from low-income families in the state’s worst schools.
After about an hour of impassioned Senate floor debate, Sen. Stacey Campfield today abandoned for the year an effort to enact legislation that calls for cutting welfare benefits to parents of children who fail in school.
Several Republican senators declared during the debate that they intended to vote against the Knoxville lawmaker’s bill (SB132). Campfield also acknowledged that Gov. Bill Haslam was opposing the legislation.
The senator acknowledged that critics of the bill had raised “good points” and the debate showed “we all have true passion to get parents involved” and “we have to do something.”
But instead of pushing for a vote – as he had indicated earlier he would do – Campfield said there should be a study of the legislation and other options to enhance parental involvement over the summer and fall. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said the study could be arranged.
Senators voicing objections to the bill – which had cleared Senate committees with unanimous Republican support – included Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville; Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville; and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.
Gardenhire said, for example, that he saw “unintended consequences” if the measure was enacted when children would be blamed for a loss of family welfare income and beaten.
Despite being told that Gov. Bill Haslam is now flatly opposed to a bill that would cut welfare benefits to parents of children failing in school, Republican legislators unanimously backed the measure in a House committee on Tuesday.
Luke Ashley, a Haslam legislative liaison, told members of the House Government Operations Committee that the governor “disagrees with the legislation and would consider vetoing it if it comes to his desk.”
Haslam’s new position marks a change of heart for his administration, which had previously declared itself neutral on the bill (HB261) through the Department of Human Services after it was revised with amendments.
The amendments, worked out with sponsors and DHS officials, say the reduction in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits can be restored if a parent signs a failing child up for tutoring, attends two parent-teacher conferences, attends an eight-hour parenting class or attends a special summer school session.
Ashley said Haslam now has “philosophical differences” with the bill, even as amended. He said the governor officially informed staff of the position change on Monday, the same day Haslam told reporters he has misgivings about the measure.