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Paying jobless benefits: Better, but still a struggle after four months

Staff at the Georgia Department of Labor have been overwhelmed by about 3 million applications for unemployment payments, leaving many Georgians waiting weeks or months for help while jobless. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Staff at the Georgia Department of Labor have been overwhelmed by about 3 million applications for unemployment payments, leaving many Georgians waiting weeks or months for help while jobless. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Calls, emails not returned amid tidal wave of pandemic-triggered claims

Laid off in the early days of the pandemic, Wanda Torbert filed quickly for unemployment, but three months later she was still waiting for payments from the Department of Labor.

The Randolph County woman filed online – the offices were closed to the public – and was notified online she was not eligible: There was no proof of her having had an income last year. She knew that was wrong – she’d worked all year – but couldn’t fix the problem herself and couldn’t get human assistance.

“I just wish someone would answer their phone or email,” she said. “I have been leaving requests since April.”

Wanda Torbert, Randolph County
Wanda Torbert, Randolph County

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Four months into the pandemic-triggered jobs crisis, tens of thousands of Georgians are still in a special purgatory – out of work, waiting for jobless benefits and unable to reach anyone about the problem.

State labor department offices have been closed to the public since March because of the coronavirus. Applicants call department numbers hundreds of times, sometimes getting a busy signal, sometimes leaving voice mail, never hearing back. They send emails into the abyss. On social media, they post frustrated, angry messages.

And the outlook could soon worsen. A $600-a-week federal emergency payment for unemployed workers will expire at the end of July unless Congress acts. Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases has been rising in many states, including Georgia, raising the specter of still-more economic turmoil and new waves of layoffs.

To be sure, most of the currently jobless have been getting help. After struggling to handle a historic wave of claims, Georgia’s labor department says it has sent payment to 91% of 1.2 million claims it has judged legitimate. That is up from 83% in early May.

But it still means many people are waiting. And while the state has become much better at processing, it has not gotten much better at allowing those still waiting to get information and human help.

One reason for the struggle: The state’s labor department is doing vastly more work with fewer than one-third of the personnel it had a decade ago.

All of that raises questions about whether Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration has made it enough of a priority to get money to unemployed Georgians. Kemp’s office did not respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his administration’s handling of claims.

The case load has been unprecedented, and most people are now getting payments issued within a week, said Mark Butler, the state’s labor commissioner, defending his agency’s handling of the crisis in an interview with the AJC.

“In 16 weeks, we had more claims than in the previous seven years,” Butler said. “It’s not even like you could call up a former labor commissioner and ask what to do, because they’d say, ‘Hey, we never did this before.’”

Georgia is among many states whose systems were swamped by the crisis and have not yet caught up. Some states – especially Florida – have been far less efficient, experts say. Comparing the performance of the states is difficult because it is impossible to know how many initial claims are valid, how many people are waiting for payment and how long each of them waits.

Still, Georgia has had enough time to fix its crucial problems, argued Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who studies unemployment systems. “When people had to have their cases investigated – to verify their claim – those cases were taking about seven weeks to get decided. That is a long time to wait.”

It’s worse when they don’t know why there’s a delay, he said. “The system can’t work without being able to have a human to talk to.”

A range of fixes are possible: more extended hours, a more robust social media presence, a call center that could screen the nonessential calls from those that are urgent, Stettner said. “There’s a lot of technology in the private sector that could be useful. You can build in triage. It is all about managing the load.”

Meanwhile, the weeks pass.

Ashley Mitchell, 30, of Decatur, was laid off in May from her warehouse job packing snack and drink carts that go on airplanes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. She got the notice that she’s eligible, but no payment. Her calls to the DOL have not yet connected her to a person.

“Rent, it’s barely getting paid,” Mitchell said. “And I’m on a payment plan as of now.”

The federal Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.  AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The federal Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In mid-winter, unemployment was at a historic low and the DOL’s funding, linked by law to the number of unemployed, was at levels last seen in 2001. Worse, starting salaries for the specialists who handle claims is about $35,000 – well below Atlanta’s median pay.

“Obviously we’d like to have more people,” said Butler, the commissioner. “And we have a low rate of pay compared to private sector jobs, which makes it hard to recruit.”

And then came the new tidal wave.

In a matter of three weeks in March, pandemic-triggered closures sent initial jobless claims spiking from less than 5,000 to more than 75 times that number. About 3 million claims have been filed – many duplicates, some fraudulent, but many valid.

Many filed through hastily created programs for self-employed, contract and gig workers under the federal CARES Act. There was little warning that the states would be responsible for executing the new programs created by Congress in late March.

“They thought we could just plug those people in – but no system works like that,” said Butler. “I don’t think anyone realizes what a monumental task it is to create something like that out of thin air.”

Along the way, the department has brought back 45 workers from retirement and added 153 contractors to the 1,059 employees it had in February. But they are still shorthanded. Five years ago, the DOL had 80 claims examiners; now there are 27.

Many employees have been working long hours and weekends handling claims, seeing workloads like never before.

“I am working 12, 13 hours a day and that is every single day, Saturday and Sunday,” said 22-year DOL employee Crystal Singleton. “We have no lives. I cannot remember the last time I cooked.”

Crystal SIngleton, a supervisor of policies and procedures at the Georgia Department of Labor, says she understands why many people are frustrated about not getting their unemployment payments.
Crystal SIngleton, a supervisor of policies and procedures at the Georgia Department of Labor, says she understands why many people are frustrated about not getting their unemployment payments.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Singleton, a supervisor for policies and procedures, said she and her colleagues are often the target of abuse.

“We understand their frustration,” she said. “We apologize and tell them we are here to help them now.”

When there is a problem, it can be something substantive – perhaps a former employer is fighting the benefits claim. Many claimants don’t realize they need to certify their joblessness each week – at one point, according to Butler, there were more than 50,000 people who were eligible and just needed to click the right buttons.

Most commonly, it is some trivial detail. An incorrectly spelled name, an old or inaccurate address, inverted Social Security numbers. Often, the jobless applicant isn’t even aware of the mistake. Sometimes payments stop because an employer forgets to change the date each week when filing on behalf of a former worker.

Resolving those issues can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. About 8,000 claims have been held up because the applicant’s identity must be confirmed – otherwise the state is inviting fraud, Butler said. “You’ve got to call all 8,000 people.”

Critics agree that checkpoints are needed, but they also block valid claims by people who really need their payments.

“Those are obstacles, especially for low-income workers,” said George Wentworth, senior counsel and unemployment specialist for the National Employment Law Project. “And it’s harder still if you don’t have broadband. Some things are hard to do on a smart phone.”

Experts have long criticized Georgia for having one of the nation’s least generous unemployment programs, citing the decision in 2013 to ratchet back eligibility to 14 weeks with a maximum payment of $365 per week.

Yet critics also praised Kemp in the early days of the pandemic for extending payments to 26 weeks. The amount a worker could make part-time in a week without losing any benefits went from $30 to $300.

“Those were good things,” said Wentworth. “The suddenness and ferocity of this crisis were unprecedented.”

Legislators say the most common grievance is from people who are not getting their payments and don’t know what the problem is. They don’t know whether it’s just a matter of time before the DOL gets to them or if their claim has been derailed indefinitely, said Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta.

When she asked for help for one such constituent, Butler personally took care of it, Harrell said. “And I am very grateful for that, but what about the rest? We need some kind of ‘trouble-ticket’ system so there’s a systematic way to deal with the backlog of people because it’s only going to get worse.”

Butler has blamed the unanswered phone lines in part on too many people calling for non-urgent reasons, which keeps those with serious problems from getting through. Training people to answer phones takes time and pulls experienced people away from helping. He dismissed opening new call centers - some states have just caused more problems by having uninformed people answering phones, he said.

Torbert, the Randolph County resident, thinks it would have helped just to speak with a staffer.

Awaiting a benefit payment, she grew increasingly anxious about a looming tax bill, she said. “Never in my life have I had to file an extension.”

In desperation, she contacted a reporter who asked the DOL about her case. Officials checked and quickly concluded she was due benefit payments. They assured her they’d take care of it, and a few days later, the money went into her account.

The reason for the delay? In filings with the DOL, her former employer had spelled Torbert’s name wrong.

Snapshot, Georgia Department of Labor

Annual budget: $114 million

Portion from federal government: 89%

Staff in 2011: about 4,000

Staff in Feb., 2020: 1,059

Staff in July, 2020: 1,250 (including 45 retirees and 153 contractors)

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

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Georgia, Claims filed, claims paid

Claims filed since mid-March: 2.8 million

Claims judged valid: 1.3 million

Valid claims with request for payment: 1.2 million

Number of claimants with at least one payment: 1.1 million

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

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Claims explosion

Average claims per week, Feb. 2019-Feb., 2020: 5,550

Average claims per week, March-June, 2020: 167,837

Source: U.S. Employment and Training Administration, Georgia Department of Labor

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