“This is an issue I’m getting pounded on every day by our small business owners and many Georgians,” Kemp said. “They need some help.”
Many businesses support the move, but it drew fire from critics, including Democrats and recipients who said the federal supplement has been essential for housing and food. Many low-wage jobs are open, but some of the jobless were better paid before the pandemic and are searching for something comparable.
“Not everybody was a McDonalds worker before this,” said Erin Miller, 28, of Atlanta. “I have been looking for marketing jobs. I’d like to use this degree that I just paid all this money for.”
Republican governors in about a dozen states previously announced plans to cancel the extra benefits. Federal rules require a governor’s approval to make that change, but Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said he is working in tandem with Kemp.
The Department of Labor lists more than a quarter-million job openings in the state, Butler said in a statement. “It is critical for us to support our economy and local businesses by providing solutions to the roadblocks many Georgians have faced when returning to work.”
Many Georgia Republicans were skeptical of the $300 weekly boost when it was adopted. That criticism ramped up dramatically after a disappointing national jobs report last week and growing complaints from industry groups that workers — especially those at the low end of the wage scale — were hard to find.
The federal subsidy discourages unemployed people from looking for work, according to a range of business groups, including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Association of Manufacturers.
Supporters of extra benefits say they blunt the impact of the pandemic while the economy recovers. They argue aid is especially needed for women with children still learning remotely.
Studies have shown a mix of reasons for the worker shortage. Some people are staying home with children, some are afraid of jobs that may expose them to COVID-19, and some who had low-income work have a financial incentive to delay returning to the labor force.
Kemp’s decision puts Georgia in line with senior GOP officials, such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who accused Democrats of putting “handcuffs” on the recovery with extended jobless aid.
Many grassroots Georgia Republicans have echoed those sentiments. State Sen. Steve Gooch, a GOP leader in the state Senate, recently pressed Kemp in a letter to roll back the benefits. Other Republican officials raised the issue on social media.
Kemp’s move also sparked immediate praise from business groups.
“Our hope is that by ending the additional payments, more people will return to work,” said Nathan Humphrey, Georgia director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
But the decision could alienate some rank-and-file conservatives who depended on the enhanced jobless benefits to make ends meet.
“I am a staunch Republican, but I am so frustrated that I can’t stand it,” said Pamela Tolliver, who was laid off from an engineering firm in July.
The Cumming resident said she’s been sending out resumes, but has heard nothing from potential employers. “I think Gov. Kemp has been hearing the business side and not hearing my side.”
Tolliver, 51, had also worked part-time at a pharmacy, but lost that job, too.
Many of the jobs that are open are too far away, she said. Others are in warehouses or trucking and require heavy lifting that she cannot do. And some jobs just don’t pay enough.
“I am not a lazy person,” Tolliver said. “I need health insurance. My daughter needs health insurance. I think Gov. Kemp needs to get the whole picture.”
Georgia jobless benefits top out at $365 a week, although many claimants receive less. The federal incentive adds $300 — the combined equivalent of $16.63 an hour for a 40-hour week.
For many low-wage workers, those benefits are enough to replace or surpass their pre-pandemic pay. According to a 2019 Brookings Institution study, one-fifth of metro Atlanta workers were making less than $10.09 an hour.
But the median household income in Georgia is $58,700, according to the Census Bureau, and the pandemic also meant job losses for thousands of better-paid residents.
Marquis Davis of Duluth was a marketing manager making more than $90,000 a year for an auto sales company that laid off most employees during the pandemic. He received his final paycheck in August, not long after the engine in his own car died.
He said he has been looking for work, getting interviews but not yet getting an offer.
“The unemployment is enough to pay rent and food an utilities, but you can’t live much of a life off that,” he said. “I’m not turning down any job.”
While pressuring jobless workers, axing benefits also means less federal money flowing into the state, providing less stimulus to the economy.
“We could lose a bit of consumer spending in Georgia,” said Ray Khalfani, a research associate at the left-of-center Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “People need time to get back to the workforce.”
Since the pandemic began, the state has distributed nearly $17 billion in federal payments, according to Georgia’s labor department.
For several months after the pandemic started, the federal government added $600 to weekly jobless benefits. After that lapsed, the level of the subsidy varied. The $300-a-week subsidy was part of the packaged passed in February.
Overall, Georgia’s economy is faring better than in many other states, adding 21,800 jobs last month. The jobless rate was 4.5% in March, compared with 6% nationally.
Last week the state processed 32,833 new jobless claims — up more than 7,400 from the previous week — but the majority of those claims were people who had first filed last year and needed to reapply, according to the labor department.
Many jobless workers wait a long time to receive the benefits.
Jay Willson, who lives in Gwinnett, was laid off in mid-March from a job as a bank’s head of compliance. He filed for benefits the next day and is still waiting for payments.
“My bills won’t wait,” he said. “We’ve got an income tax bill that is going to drain our savings, but this would at least help pay for groceries and expenses.”
Weekly jobless claims, Georgia
Highest, pre-pandemic: 41,522 (Jan. 10, 2010)
Highest, pandemic: 390,132 (April 4, 2020)
Average, pre-pandemic: 5,548
Average, last four weeks: 29,852
Last week: 32,833
Total since Mar. 21: 4.7 million
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration
Federal benefits to Georgia workers
Amount paid to jobless, week ending May 8: $171.4 million
Amount paid to jobless, since start of pandemic: $16.9 billion
Source: Georgia Department of Labor
Georgia labor market snapshot
Number of job openings listed on state web site: 260,000
Number f0 job openings estimated in Georgia: 400,000
Number of Georgians in labor force, but unemployed: 231,990
Number of Georgians missing from labor force since pandemic: 40,337
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, PeopleReady, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Benefits and pay, by the numbers
Maximum weekly unemployment benefit from Georgia: $365
Federal weekly supplement to unemployment benefit: $300
Forty hours work at Georgia’s minimum wage: $290
Forty hours work at $15 an hour: $600
Median salary, per week*: $1,129
*Assuming 40-hour week
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Georgia Department of Labor