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Labor Commissioner says likely changes will be a challenge

The state Department of Labor has struggled for months with an unprecedented wave of layoffs plus the need to implement new federal programs. Mark Butler, Georgia's labor commissioner, says the latest proposals to unemployment benefits will make a tough situation even tougher.
The state Department of Labor has struggled for months with an unprecedented wave of layoffs plus the need to implement new federal programs. Mark Butler, Georgia's labor commissioner, says the latest proposals to unemployment benefits will make a tough situation even tougher.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Alternating between sounding worried and frustrated, Georgia’s labor commissioner said Wednesday that possible changes to unemployment benefits could pose a challenge and take months to implement.

Right now, many laid-off Americans are receiving an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits because of the federal CARES Act, which was passed partly to help those who have lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Senate Republicans have proposed cutting that amount to $200 immediately while states restructure the benefit to instead pay out 70% of the workers’ previous wages.

“Here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, and the level of (jobless) claims is just spectacular, and we are totally rewriting the unemployment system,” Labor Commission Mark Butler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s like they think that we out here are just play-doh.”

Pandemic-triggered layoffs sent jobless claims soaring to unprecedented levels in early spring, and the overall jobs situation has not improved dramatically.

As the crisis deepened, Congress pass the CARES Act, which extended unemployment coverage to contractors and gig workers who never before had been covered.

With layoffs at near-Depression levels, the CARES Act benefits have been credited by economists with allowing families to stay in their homes and buy necessities. But 68% of recipients are receiving more from the benefits than they had made on the job, according to a University of Chicago study. That has spurred criticism from some Republicans.

The $600-a-week component is scheduled to end this week, though Democrats in Congress want to keep paying that amount.

Making a percentage calculation would require a reshaping of the state’s software and slow the processing of claims, Butler said. “We said, ‘just give us a stationary number. Pick a number – the program is already written and you just have to change the number.’ We told the folks in Washington not to do a percentage, but here we are.”

The most recent proposals would give the state two months to make the transition to that new program.

“We think we could probably hit that target,” Butler said. “But I am making some grand assumptions.”

More than 3.2 million jobless claims have been processed in Georgia. About 1.4 million have been judged valid. Meanwhile, cases of the coronavirus have risen across much of the country – including Georgia.

Butler said he is anxiously awaiting some kind of Congressional compromise.

“If it’s something simple, you’ll know I’m relieved,” he said. “If there is a bunch of algebra and trigonometry, you’ll know I’m not happy.”