As federal jobless payments cut, Georgians still wait on claims

Alicia Hornsby talks with her daughter after lunch at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Alicia Hornsby talks with her daughter after lunch at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

State labor department has struggled to keep up since spring 2020

As the state cuts off historically generous jobless benefits this week, many of Georgia’s unemployed are still waiting for a hearing on whether they will be paid.

The Georgia Department of Labor has disbursed more than $22 billion in unemployment benefits since March 2020, when the pandemic shutdowns triggered an avalanche of layoffs and the federal government responded with an unprecedented series of measures to support the jobless.

But for the last 15 months, even as the state processed nearly 4.9 million claims, hundreds of thousands of frustrated applicants have been unable to get overtaxed labor department workers on the phone or their emails answered. Agency offices also have been shuttered since the pandemic began.

The processing delays have sparked harsh criticism, but the labor department’s task has been tough. It has needed to apply new and often-revised rules, paying those who were eligible and simultaneously trying to stymie fraud.

Wherever the blame, the department has struggled and is still digging out.

About 136,500 people are waiting to have their cases reviewed by the DOL, most of them appealing rulings. Some want payments reinstated, some never received payments in the first place.

Alicia Hornsby of Canton says she applied for unemployment benefits in October after leaving a teaching job so she could stay home with her children who were learning online. She was rejected, appealed and has been awaiting a hearing.

Hornsby and the Labor Department differ about how her case has been handled, to whom she has spoken and whether she is eligible. But there is no doubt that she is deep in a financial hole, fearing eviction.

She is starting a part-time job tutoring, but it won’t undo the need for those benefits, she said. “I’m five months behind on rent. I’m worried about their cutting off electricity. My car battery is dead and I can’t afford a tune-up. So yeah, I desperately need the money.”

Alicia Hornsby eats lunch with her two children at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Alicia Hornsby eats lunch with her two children at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In the year before the pandemic, Georgia’s DOL processed an average of 5,548 initial claims per week, almost exactly the number handled the second week of March 2020. Two weeks later, the DOL processed 133,820 claims.

The week after that it was nearly 400,000. It did not fall below 100,000 again until late July. Since October, claims have averaged 27,725.

With businesses arguing federal unemployment benefits have kept many potential workers on the sidelines amid a labor crunch, Gov. Brian Kemp announced last month the federal supplements would be eliminated June 26.

That means about 211,000 Georgians will stop getting payments altogether. About 58,000 others will keep their state benefits but lose a $300-a-week federal subsidiary. State jobless benefits top out at $365 a week.

Kemp and business leaders say that should speed up Georgia’s economic recovery, but some economists warn it’s too early to end the relief. With COVID-19 still circulating and many in the state not vaccinated, some Georgians are staying home with children or taking care of elders. A federal moratorium on evictions for renters also is poised to expire at the end of June.

And while the federal jobless benefits have helped many Georgians stay afloat financially, for others the help has been slow to arrive, if at all.

A May report by the office of the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Labor found that after the federal CARES Act last year authorized emergency payments for those who lost jobs, it took many weeks for most states to begin payments.

Georgia’s Department of Labor took four weeks to start making payments under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provided help to self-employed, gig and contract workers, according to the report. That tied for 15th best among the states. The report showed Georgia took 76 days — ranking 42 — to make payments under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program that extended benefits by 13 weeks.

Mark Butler, Georgia’s labor commissioner, questioned much of the report’s data as well as its descriptions of the state’s technology as a bottleneck: Some of the states with the newest technology were the slowest to make payments, he said.

In fact, the Georgia DOL was among those with innovative ideas early on, said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Fund who has studied unemployment systems. He praised Georgia for having employers file claims for laid-off workers at the start of the pandemic. That made some things faster.

Yet other requirements — like the need to verify identity and income history and to refile after a year — slowed down the process, Stettner said. “Billions of dollars in benefits have gone out and the programs have shown their value, but the delays and difficulties for workers have been excruciating and humiliating. Both of those things are true.”

And for those waiting, there is often only bad news.

Joshua Schwartz of Atlanta says he lost his job in a downtown theater troupe when the pandemic hit. For a few weeks, he received benefits, but then the company stopped filing for him, eventually going out of business. The payments stopped.

He says he waited months for an appeal, then was told he should have filed in North Carolina — even though he had moved to Georgia in 2019. He considered hiring a lawyer to fight the decision but decided it would be too costly.

“It is a very frustrating situation,” Schwartz said.

His wife works as an accountant and they’ve tapped into savings and loans from family, but they had hoped to start saving for a home down payment. “I’ve been OK, but the state completely let me down on this.”

Last fall, Georgia’s labor department added an online scheduler that let people book phone appointments, but it was often filled by mid-morning Monday.

Staffing more than anything has been the problem, but it’s not one easily solved, Butler said.

Hiring is meaningless without training, which is time consuming and also pulls staffers away from dealing with claimants, he said. “People assume we could have done something different. Maybe if there were 100 trained appeals officers that we could have hired from somewhere. But they don’t exist.”

Pre-pandemic, Georgia’s DOL had 1,050 employees, slightly more than half its size a decade earlier. Now, despite an effort to hire and the return of some retirees, the staff has grown only to 1,087.

Since the start of the pandemic, the department has trained 349 temp agency workers to help with benefits, but 127 of those people left — some saying they couldn’t handle the stress or workload. The DOL also has 65 retirees who came back to work.

During the pandemic’s early months, Butler said he asked other state department heads to each loan one HR staffer to help with hiring people.

None did.

Alicia Hornsby eats lunch with her two children at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Alicia Hornsby eats lunch with her two children at their Canton home. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The system’s sluggishness spurred some people on social media to offer themselves as guides.

Perhaps the most prolific, Sabrina Hogan, with the Twitter handle Feisty Heifer, says she has helped nearly 8,000 claimants reach DOL staffers. She says she is sympathetic to the DOL. “I get countless claimants who continue to not understand the fundamentals of this and are committing fraud whether through their own ignorance or willingly.”

But the DOL also has had problems and they predate the pandemic, said Ray Khalfani, research associate at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

Long waits, confusion over benefits and the frustration of many claimants are built into the system, he said. “I think the DOL has done as well as they possibly could, based on their funding level. State leaders have not given them what they need. They need higher funding.”

Most of the DOL’s roughly $115 million budget comes from the federal government, but the state legislature is always stingy about its share, Khalfani said. In early 2020 — pre-pandemic — the legislature appropriated $13.4 million to the department for the fiscal year starting in July. This year, the budget was trimmed to $12.8 million.

With the resource shortfall, the big backlog of hearings likely won’t be resolved any time soon, even as new weekly claims continue to decline.

“We struggle here. And as the economy starts to open, we have started to lose people to the private sector,” Butler said.

Many Georgians who have come through the year financially intact say they have been skating close to disaster.

Richard Bales, who lives in unincorporated DeKalb County, says he has had and lost several temp jobs for the past year and was forced to file for benefits anew each time. He recently ran into trouble when his aging phone was no longer able to link effectively with the DOL web site.

With rent eating up his savings, he recently needed help from a reporter to get in touch with a DOL staffer so he could get his claim processed.

“Things are terrifying for all of us that don’t have a circle of support,” he said. “I just hope things bounce back quick with reopening.”

He says he doesn’t have to look far to see the danger of not getting his benefit payment, including the rising threat of evictions. “It’s so sad. A neighbor next door had their stuff left in the rain.”

Number of Georgians receiving jobless payments

Federal programs*: 211,000

State programs: 58,000

*Programs end by June 26 in Georgia

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

_______________________________

Snapshot* of Georgians’ financial health

People receiving jobless benefits: 258,552

-- Share of population receiving benefits: 3.2%

-- Share of those making $35,000-$50,000: 10.0%

Households behind on rent: 171,579

-- Share of households behind on rent: 13.2%

People finding it very difficult to pay expenses: 1.05 million

-- Share of people finding it very difficult: 13.0%

People finding it somewhat difficult: 1.23 million

-- Share of people finding it somewhat difficult: 15.3%

Number of adults who sometimes or often do not have enough to eat: 593,326

-- Share of adults who sometimes or often do not have enough to eat: 7.4%

*Survey taken in late May

Source: U.S. Census Bureau