Some federal pandemic aid ending, though Georgia job market still weak

40,000+ jobless claims last week; gig, self-employed benefits run dry

The end is approaching for federal payments that helped Georgia gig and self-employed workers who lost incomes because of the pandemic, even as the economy continues to fling thousands of others into the pool of job seekers.

About 322,300 people in the state have received a total of more than $1.6 billion in payments through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, intended to provide up to 39 weeks of help to workers who were not usually eligible for unemployment benefits.

Up to 70,000 of those people could see their last payment within a week, and the rest will lose the benefit by year’s end, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

Workers receiving state benefits — people who were laid off from jobs — are typically eligible for an extra 13 weeks of benefits from the state, but not PUA recipients.

Last week, the Georgia Department of Labor processed 43,695 new jobless claims, slightly fewer than the prior week. While far lower than the apocalyptic filings of early spring, that is still higher than the number of claims during the worst week of the Great Recession.

About 340,000 jobs have been added in Georgia since April and the unemployment rate has dropped dramatically. But the state still has 190,000 fewer jobs than in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

People whose PUA claims started in February could see benefits end this week, said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Labor. “People are going to say, ‘Where’s my extension?’ But there’s no extension.”

For people who filed later in the spring and have not gone back to work, the PUA benefits will last a while longer, but all measures that were part of the federal CARES Act expire Dec. 31.

Many legislators said they hoped the massive program would keep millions of Americans afloat until the economy rebounded and jobs were again plentiful. And the CARES Act was credited by economists with bolstering spending and preventing a disastrous wave of evictions and foreclosures.

But many sectors of the economy have not recovered and the job market remains crimped by coronavirus concerns.

The number of unemployed continues to far outnumber the job openings on either state or private jobs sites. Moreover, hiring in some sectors has not prevented job cuts in others.

The majority of claims filed since March have been in hospitality, especially among hotels, restaurants and companies dependent on either business events or travel. Many were large-scale furloughs and cuts at big companies.

In contrast, layoff filings with the state the past few weeks have been small batches of cuts from small companies.

Construction, for example, continues to see delays and cancellations of projects across the state, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors.

About 30% of Georgia’s construction companies cut their workforce at least temporarily because of the pandemic, he said. While many of those workers were rehired, overall employment in construction is virtually unchanged from a year ago. About 16% said they will be cutting their workforce in the coming year, Simonson said.

Nearly 4 million claims have been processed in Georgia since early March, with 1.8 million of them judged valid, according to the DOL.

That unprecedented avalanche of claims overwhelmed state officials who struggled to process claims, weed out fraud and make payments. Through spring and summer, claimants complained of agonizingly long waits for needed benefits. Adding to their frustration, many who needed help found it impossible to reach staff members through tied-up phone lines and clogged email systems.

After months of asking claimants for understanding and patience, the DOL said Thursday that starting next week, the DOL web site will include an online scheduler that will let claimants with problems request a phone appointment with a staff member.

Weekly new jobless claims, Georgia

Highest, pre-pandemic: 41,522 (Jan. 10, 2009)

Highest, during pandemic: 390,132 (April 4, 2020)

Average, past four weeks: 46,907 (Weeks starting Oct. 3-24)

Recent: 43,695 (Oct. 24)

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration