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Back to Work for Furloughed State Employees

More than 500 state workers have returned to work after President Obama and the U.S. Congress reached an agreement to end the partial federal shutdown.

Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor, said all furloughed workers are back on the job, but the state is still waiting for word about back pay.

“We are waiting for guidance from the (U.S. Department of Labor) whether these employees will get back pay,” Hentschel said.

The Department of Labor gets 79 percent of its funding from the federal government and the partial federal shutdown delayed federal monies from funding the department.

In all the department sent home 369 employees Monday in addition to the 27 Labor Market Information employees who were furloughed Oct. 9.

Workers in the Department of Human Services and Department of the Military reported to work Friday. DHS idled 112 from Disability Determination Services. DOM furloughed 103.

The state was forced to furlough some federally funded state workers during the shutdown as its surpluses ran dry.

Other departments, like the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, received grant funds and reimbursements in time to continue business as usual.

The TBI, which receives millions in federal grants, was able to meet the U.S. Office of Justice Program’s Oct. 4 deadline so the state’s law enforcement agency remained fully funded.

The federal government partially shutdown Oct. 1 after the U.S. Congress and the president failed to agree on an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 or a continuing resolution in the interim.

The impasse resulted in about 800,000 federal employees being furloughed and about 1.3 million were asked to work without pay. It also resulted in a short vacation for several hundred state workers in Tennessee, who were completely or partly funded by the federal government.

Congress passed a continuing resolution on the night of Oct. 16 to reopen the federal government. The resolution will fund the federal government through the middle of January.

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Stricter Work-Search Requirements Needed for Unemployment Aid Recipients: Ramsey

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey wants more unemployed Tennesseans who’re taking government benefits to start proving they’re out looking to get hired — and not refusing to go to work once they’re offered a job.

“Right now, it’s too easy just to click a mouse and say you’re just looking for a job,” he told reporters last week. “I would like to have something more concrete that people have to actually be looking for a job if they’re on unemployment right now.”

Only about 10 percent of Tennessee’s roughly 120,000 people on unemployment currently have to provide any documentation that they’re applying for jobs, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Existing rules require benefit recipients to fill out forms only after they’ve been on the department’s rolls for a year-and-a-half. After that, they must submit forms weekly listing at least two employers they’ve contacted about jobs.

There are about 12,000 Tennesseans who’ve presently crossed that 79-week point. However, the state only audits 20 claimants a month to ensure they actually tried to find work, according to the department.

All claimants have to attest weekly throughout their unemployment if they rejected job offers. Last year, 308 people were temporarily denied benefits for refusing work, according to an agency official.

“For the past two years, our focus in general has been paying benefits to an extremely large population as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Hentschel, a Tennessee Department of Labor spokesman. “Verification of all work searches would require an extreme amount of resources, and would require unique solutions from the department, employers or both.”

Ramsey didn’t offer up a specific plan for how he would add more accountability to the state’s unemployment system or what it would cost. And he said he doesn’t believe there’s a systematic problem with people milking the system when they have other options and offers.

Nevertheless, Ramsey said he’s heard from enough employers as he’s traveled the state that he’s convinced the issue needs attention.

“I am concerned, talking to employers, that they’ll try to hire people and they’ll say ‘Well, my benefits don’t run out for six more weeks, eight more weeks, and I don’t want to be hired until then’,” Ramsey said. “I know it is tough times, I’m not downplaying that at all. But I also know that in some cases there are jobs available if people would be willing to do it.”

Ramsey said that since he began speaking about the issue he’s been “inundated by employers who say this is exactly what is happening.”

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters during a Nov. 7 press conference that he’s heard complaints along those lines from “several employers.”

The federal government provides the state with $2 million through the Re-employment Services Assessment program that offers focused job search services to 20,000 people deemed statistically likely to exhaust their first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, according to the Labor Department.

Extending similar resources to monitor more Tennesseans on unemployment benefits would cost in the neighborhood of $100 a person, said Hentschel. Applied to all the state’s claimants, that practice would have cost as much as $41 million in 2010.

Last year, 418,772 Tennesseans filed for unemployment benefits, the state says. The state’s jobless rate continues to hover around 10 percent.

Haslam added though that he doesn’t think there’s anything the state should do in terms of changing the unemployment system. “I think the only issue that we’ve faced as a state has been whether to extend the weeks,” said the governor, adding that he doesn’t expect the federal government to offer an extension in 2012. “I’m not sure it will be an issue that faces us this year like it did last year.”

Late this spring, state lawmakers agreed to extend federal unemployment benefits by an additional 20 weeks — a move Ramsey later said he regrets. Other Republicans have followed his lead after hearing business owners, especially in the trucking industry, say people who are unemployed won’t take them up on job offers until their unemployment benefits run out.

Tennessee offers 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. When those expire, the jobless are eligible to continue collecting unemployment checks for a total of 99 weeks under the federal extension, which is set to expire at the end of the year. It’s unknown whether the federal government will renew the extension.

The system wasn’t always this way. Until the 1980s, Tennesseans on the unemployment rolls had to show more consistent proof they were applying for jobs, Hentschel said. But the state changed the law after employers complained they didn’t have the time to sign off on every job applicant who inquires about a position.