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As the state of Tennessee begins its phased reopening efforts, there are questions about Tennesseans’ eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Last week, Tennessee Department of Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord said during a press conference that “Tennesseans can still collect unemployment if they are afraid to return to work.”

However, in a press conference on Tuesday, McCord seemed to suggest that that would not be the case, saying that if Tennesseans “are offered a job and [their] employer opens back up, then [they] stand a chance of losing those benefits if [they] don’t have a clear reason not to go back.”

McCord’s most recent comments on unemployment eligibility are further supported by the Labor Department’s website, where it reads that if Tennesseans “fail to return to work when called or accept suitable work when offered, [they] are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits,” with benefits collected after refusing work required to be paid back in full.

While responses from state leadership have been mixed, one consensus that has been reached across the aisle has been that there are still a lot of unknowns for the time being.

Sam Whitson Headshot

Sam Whitson has represented Tennessee's 65th District - Franklin - in the state House of Representatives since 2017.

State Rep. Sam Whitson, who represents the southwest portion of Williamson County, told the Home Page there would be a multitude of factors to look at going forward as to determine unemployment eligibility, and that some exceptions to the norm would be made.

“There will be the need for specific rules and regulations regarding those with underlying conditions or in high risk categories,” Whitson wrote. “Another consideration is how many employees will actually be needed if the buying public is not ready to return to the new normal. Lots of unknowns as we move forward.”

State Rep. Glen Casada, who represents the eastern portion of Williamson County, said that extending unemployment benefits towards Tennesseans who have been offered work but choose to stay home for safety concerns would "not be an option" under federal law.

Casada

Rep. Glen Casada represents Tennessee District 63 in the Tennessee General Assembly.

“My understanding is this is not an option that the states have,” Casada wrote. “It is a mandate by the federal government on the criteria that one must have to comply with to continue to receive unemployment compensation.”

State Democrats were far more outspoken in their disapproval of the state’s handling of unemployment as the state reopens, with the Tennessee Democratic Caucus calling on Gov. Lee to extend unemployment benefits Wednesday during a virtual press conference.

“Tennesseans should not have to choose between feeding their families and keeping their families safe,” said State Rep. and Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart. “We call on Gov. Lee to issue clear guidance to confirm that Tennessee workers, if they believe their workplace is unsafe, can stay home and still receive unemployment insurance.”

Democratic Caucus virtual press conference

The Tennessee Democratic Caucus holds its virtual press conference Wednesday morning.

Furthermore, Stewart was critical of McCord’s apparent conflicting statements over the past two weeks, and called the decision to strip away unemployment benefits to workers who want to stay home “completely unacceptable.”

“Initially, the commissioner of labor stated that he believed people would not have this difficult choice, that he believed that people would be allowed to stay home and not lose their unemployment benefits,” Stewart said.

“But yesterday, he changed his message and said the exact opposite in his public statements. He said if people were working at places of business that were open, that barring a particular medical issue, they would have to go back. That's completely unacceptable.”