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Why can't job seekers get through to the TN unemployment line?

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

For years, job seekers have said they are running into big problems getting unemployment benefits from the state during a time when they can't afford to wait.

All along, the state has promised upgrades, and they say another one is coming. But the Channel 4 I-Team is asking why these problems haven't been fixed after all these years.

This isn't the first time the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has come under fire for this problem or been investigated by the Channel 4 I-Team.

The unemployment claims system has been backlogged for years, and we've reported on the many people who can't through to get help. Now, we want to know why there's still such a hang-up with the Tennessee unemployment system.

April McArdle is worried about how to put food on the table for her little girl.

"I'm getting more and more worried about being able to support my family every day," she said.

McArdle's husband can't work for health reasons, and she was laid off in November 2012.

When we interviewed her, McArdle said she had been looking for work and had been on countless interviews but still hadn't been able to land a full-time job. That's why she was desperately trying to get through to the state's unemployment system.

She tried applying online.

"Every single time I go through the entire process, at the end, it gives me the application error that I am unable to proceed. It gives me the, 'Call the claim center at this number,'" she said.

She also tried calling.

"I have been trying these numbers for three weeks and cannot reach anyone," she said.

We even had her dial in while our camera was rolling, but she got the following message: "We cannot take your call at this time. Please try again later."

She said she gets the same message every time she calls, and she's not alone.

Dozens of people have called the Channel 4 I-Team with the same complaint. They're unemployed in Tennessee and unable to get through to get help or they're stuck with long call wait times.

An applicant can't file in person. They only have two options: call the hotline or apply online.

The state Department of Labor was criticized in an audit earlier this year for taking too long to provide unemployment claims and for misspending $73 million in benefits. Three years ago, the agency spent $2 million on upgrades it said would make filing easier.

When the Channel 4 I-Team talked to Clarksville job seeker Stephanie Brakefield, she was on emergency food stamps and was facing eviction. She, too, couldn't get through to the state unemployment claims center.

We took the job seekers' concerns to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and wanted to know why the problem hasn't been fixed after all these years.

"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. "Ideally, we would throw hundreds more employees to deal with that kind of call volume. But the fact is we have flat federal funding. We have for the past 10 years. We just don't have the federal funds in which to hire more people to answer those calls."

Hentschel said the system has been back-logged since the economic recession started, and the department recently added a new form on the website for job seekers who are 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 department admits that's just a temporary fix. But at the beginning of next year, the department plans to make changes to the online system designed to alleviate that call backlog.

Since our original interviews, McArdle found a job, but it doesn't start until January. She said she was never able to get through to the unemployment system.

As for Brakefield, she says her claim was denied but she did find a minimum wage job.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development says the upgrades next year will allow job seekers to apply online 24 hours a day.

Right now, they can only apply during business hours. The agency's spokesman says other changes to the system will include accepting all claims online. Right now, federal employee, disaster and interstate claims are not accepted.

The improved online system will also give an estimate on when the claim will be approved, and claimants will be given job opening suggestions that match their qualifications.

These changes and others will be implemented during the first quarter of 2014.

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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