Georgia jobless: the wave ebbs, hope rises

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In a sign of modest but steady improvement in the economy, the number of Georgians filing jobless claims dropped for the fourth consecutive week, hitting the lowest level since March 21.

The state’s Department of Labor processed 62,335 new claims for unemployment benefits during the week ending August 8, signaling a slow ebb in the massive tide of job cuts that started in mid-March.

More than 3.43 million claims have been processed since the pandemic struck.

And while last week’s Georgia claims were down from about 74,000 the previous week — as well as from a high of 390,000 in early April — it is still well above any high prior to the pandemic.

Nationally, initial claims totaled 963,000 last week That is the first week below 1 million since March 14. About 15.5 million people were receiving benefits, more than double the previous high. And pressure on the jobless rose during the past several weeks as a program paying an extra $600 a week ended, leaving them with much less generous checks.

That will mean slow growth and hardship for households, said economist Jason Delaney of Georgia Gwinnett College.

“I have been impressed by the recovery, but a lot of it was bolstered by the ($600 a week), and that just disappeared,” he said. “The bottom kind of falls out if you don’t have people buying stuff. You can get back to an 80% economy, maybe a 90% economy, but you see what happens when the money disappears from people’s pockets.”

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order providing a temporary supplement of $400, including $100 from the state. However, it was unclear when those payments could start or how Georgia would pay its share.

Gov. Brian Kemp is working with department officials on a plan, said Mark Butler, state labor commissioner. “The President’s executive order gives states various options.”

Meanwhile, fear of the virus hovers over consumer spending, even for people who do have jobs, Delaney said. “Economists think that you have to solve the pandemic to fix the economy.”

The Georgia Department of Labor, unprepared for the scope of the crisis, was so swamped with an unprecedented wave of jobless claims early in the pandemic that many thousands of claimants waited months to start receiving benefit payments.

With the flood ebbing somewhat, Butler says the department is now getting payments to 91% of those with valid claims.

But the sheer volume means many people are still waiting. Worse, for jobless claimants, the department’s phone and email lines are still so overwhelmed that they cannot reach a staffer who can help them when a small glitch holds up payments.

Sharon Grant of Roswell was unable to get through. Laid off from a job as a mechanical designer, she filed for benefits in late April but has not received payments. She suspects that her employer made a mistake in filing information with the department.

“I think that’s what has my account hosed up,” she said.

She called, emailed and even tried going to a local Department of Labor office, which was closed to the public because of the pandemic. She spoke to a security guard who gave her several phone numbers to try.

“But it was the same thing — either busy or it just rings and rings,” she said. “And I am owed abut $12,000.”

After chewing through most of her savings, she got help from Fulton County Charities to pay rent in July, and from the St. Vincent de Paul Society to pay rent in August, she said. “Now, I’m kind of out of options.”

In June, 373,000 Georgians were officially unemployed, representing 7.6% of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, that somewhat understates the problem since it doesn’t include people who have stopped looking for work and people not working for reasons other than a layoff.

Another measure, the number of Georgians working, has fallen 445,000, since February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some jobs are being added, but slowly. For instance, MeetingAdvice, a company that produces and manages corporate meetings, has 16 employees in Atlanta, according to a spokeswoman. The 18-year-old company has just opened a new studio and hired five contractors to run it — if business picks up, the company plans to make the technicians full-time employees.

That kind of small-scale expansion is good, but it’s not enough to give consumers confidence, said economist Delaney. “People feel good about the economy when there are enough jobs for all the people who want one and wages start to rise.”

New jobless claims, week ending –

June 6: 135,254

June 13: 131,997

June 20: 125,725

June 27: 117,485

July 4: 105,160

July 11: 138,452

July 18: 122,313

July 25: 84,984

August 1: 73,931

August 8: 62,335

Source: Employment and Training Administration, Georgia Department of Labor