Back in March, as COVID-19 was spreading across the globe, Lisa English was furloughed from her bookkeeping job. She applied for unemployment benefits, but never received anything.
After a couple of months, her employer brought her back. But that turned out to be temporary. In the fall, she was let go from her job and officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. English, 36, once again applied for unemployment benefits and, once again, has received nothing.
Nearly 11 months into a pandemic that has caused unprecedented economic upheaval, the state Department of Labor is still struggling to get unemployment benefits to out-of-work Georgians in a timely manner.
Roughly 180,000 are currently waiting for their applications to be reviewed. And, for the 400,000 people who are receiving benefits right now, it often took months of phone calls and emails before the payments started rolling in.
Since the pandemic began, the labor department has processed nearly 4.4 million claims, more than in the previous nine years combined. Still, many have found the agency’s response lacking.
A frustrated English and five others have filed suit against the labor department, saying the long delays in handling claims have caused them hardship, violates the law and must be fixed right away. They are asking a judge to order the department to evaluate their claims and, if valid, to start issuing payments.
The department says it’s doing the best it can.
As the pandemic took hold, the federal CARES Act provided benefits for nearly all unemployed workers, including some normally not eligible, while requiring the state agencies to execute the plan. With a tsunami of claims and new rules, the department quickly fell months behind in processing.
And, every time Congress tweaks its pandemic relief package, the state labor department is forced to update its computer programs.
It also has had to bulk up a staff that was half the size it was during the Great Recession and to screen applications for fraud.
Compounding the public relations friction, the labor department closed its offices to the public to protect its own workers from the virus. Now, claimants must depend on the internet, email and phone for information and responses to their questions. Many complain that it is virtually impossible to reach a staffer.
Frustration has grown on social media, and some state legislators have gotten involved.
Over the summer, the department brought back some retirees temporarily and hired contractors to help. But new hires have to be trained, said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the department. And those employees who are doing the training can’t process as many claims.
Moreover, new hires don’t always stick, she said.
About 50 people were hired in November and December. “We lost about half of them. They said the work was too hard,” Cartwright said. “So, of course, we’ve hired more, but we have to retrain those folks.”
The department is hiring 15 employees for a newly created call center in Dalton. It will be devoted to answering claimant questions and helping them with their applications. Plans are in the works to open another one in South Georgia, she said.
A new feature was recently added to the state labor department’s website that allows claimants to arrange phone appointments with staff members. Activated each Monday at 8 a.m., it allows for 1,500 appointments for a week.
Within 10 minutes, all the slots for the week are filled, officials said.
Right now, new jobless filings now are processed within days, according to the department. And, if there are no questions regarding a claim, payments will follow within a week or so. But, if any of the information is in question or if the former employer contests the worker’s claim and the worker files an appeal, the application will be delayed — often for months.
Those delays have a cascading effect, according to the lawsuit filed by English and others. The case went to court last week.
One of the plaintiffs, 41-year-old waitress Kristin Townley, told Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher that she applied for benefits in May, but received only a few weeks of payments. She needed a labor department staffer to review her claim, which is being disputed by her former employer, but hasn’t been able to reach one.
“I called and left a lot of messages every day,” she told Brasher. “It’s like an endless loop, and you can’t get anywhere.”
Without income, she couldn’t pay rent, lost her home and was forced to couch surf. Without a fixed address, she lost visitation rights to see her daughter, she said.
Bryan Webb, the assistant attorney general representing the labor department, acknowledged Townley’s difficulties, but said that isn’t the agency’s fault.
The plaintiffs’ hardships do not prove that the department isn’t following the law, he said.
“This isn’t a balancing of equities,” he said. “It is not material to whether or not the Department of Labor is meeting its obligations.”
The department was put in an impossible position by an utterly unpredictable event, Webb said. “None of this was in the control of the Department of Labor. The sheer volume of that means having to wait.”
But the agency could have added resources to alleviate that wait time, either through emergency orders from the state labor commissioner or by spending more of the CARES money on hiring and training workers, argued Miriam Gutman, a Legal Aid Society attorney who is representing Townley, English and the other plaintiffs.
Thursday’s court hearing was adjourned without a decision.
Brasher asked the state for more documentation. To the plaintiffs, who are asking that the judge order the department to issue rulings and payments right away, he offered few words of encouragement.
“I’m dubious as to whether the Department of Labor can do what you ask,” Brasher said.
Georgians and the Department of Labor
Claims processed, March 2020-February 2021: 4.35 million
Claims processed March 2019-February 2020: 277,000
Currently receiving jobless benefits: 400,000
Receiving benefits at height of Great Recession: 184,000
Source: Georgia Department of Labor, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank