Unemployment Compensation in Tennessee

Unemployment Compensation in Tennessee


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One of the areas where we get questions in our law firm is about unemployment compensation.  The first thing to know is that unemployment rules are created by the state.  This means that Tennessee's rules may be different than those in Arkansas or Mississippi.  We are only licensed in Tennessee and so can only provide information about Tennessee unemployment laws.  The process for applying for unemployment compensation in Tennessee (and answering it for employers) is all on-line now.  The application process can be started here.

Can I get unemployment compensation?

In Tennessee you are generally going to be able to draw unemployment compensation unless you (a) are unable to work, (b) voluntarily quit or (c) did something to cause yourself to get fired.  These are what are known as disqualifying events.  The statute setting these out can be found here.

The first disqualifying event is self-explanatory.  If you have some medical condition that caused you to lose your job, you may be required to provide a medical certification that you are now able to work.  If you are not able to work, you are not able to draw unemployment compensation.

The second disqualifying event is also pretty self-explanatory, but sometimes does cause people some confusion.  It is not the case that if you quit for any reason you are disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation.  Rather, the standard in the law is that you "voluntarily quit without good cause connected with the work."  What this means is that if your employer did something that caused you to quit (and it is determined to be a "good cause" to quit), then you can still draw your unemployment compensation.  If you quit because you didn't like the work or the employer was doing something that the employer had a legal right to do, then you are disqualified.

The third reason is where we see most of the disputes about unemployment compensation.  The standard set down in the statute is whether the employee "engaged in intentional work-related misconduct."  This means that the employee did (or did not do) something that caused him or her to get fired.  Unlike other areas of employment law, the employer bears the burden of proving that there was a thing that the employee knew about (or should have known about - think about smoking in a dynamite factory) and did anyway knowing that it should not have been done.  If the employer can prove that, then the employee is disqualified from receiveing benefits.

Who decides if I get unemployment compensation?

The State of Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Unemployment Compensation division (that's a mouthful) makes the decision.  A number of people believe that the employer somehow "stops" them from drawing unemployment compensation.  That is impossible.  Both the employer and employee submit information to the Department of Labor and the Department makes the decision.

What if I disagree with their decision?

If either the employer or employee is unhappy with the Initial Determination, it can be appealed to the Appeals Tribunal for a de novo review.  A de novo review simply means that the Appeals Tribunal makes a decision without any presumption that the earlier Initial Determination is correct.  At this stage you may want to at least consult a lawyer.  Prior to this point there is not much a lawyer can do to help.  However, at this point you are going to have a hearing before a hearing officer and while it is not complicated (the rules of evidence on loosely apply), there are some important legal issues that you will want to be aware of before going into the hearing.

The Appeals Tribunal hearing is what I would call your last free bite at the apple.  There are appeal rights after this, but each one gets progressively more difficult with a more difficult standard of review and a diminished chance of success.

What can I get?

In Tennessee, your general benefit amount is based on your wages and is capped at $275.00 per week for 26 weeks.  With the outbreak of COVID-19, unemployment benefits will be made available to business owners, independent contractors and the self-employed.  Also, you may be eligible to receive an additional $600 per week for up to 4 months and unemployment benefits for a total of 39 weeks.