With joblessness soaring, state Labor Department officials say they will start adding $600 to unemployment benefits Monday. (AJC file photo)

State says many jobless workers will get $600 more a week starting Monday

Jobless benefits in Georgia next week will include the $600-per-person supplement that is part of the federal government’s effort to soften the virus-triggered economic tempest, officials said Tuesday.

The added weekly payment – part of a massive spending package passed by Congress – will be attached to whatever payment a laid-off worker is due each week.

“We’ll be ahead of most of the other states,” said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Georgia Labor Department. “We think we will be in the front pack.”

Payments are retroactive to last week’s benefits, she said, and will continue through July. The added $600-a-week payment is intended for anyone who does qualify, either under pre-coronavirus protocols or under new, expanded rules.

The added coin dramatically adds to the jobless payment: Georgia’s benefits average 43% of a jobless worker’s income and are capped at $365 a week.

As many sectors of the economy shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, millions of people have lost their jobs – even as they continue to face bills for utilities, rent, mortgage and food.

In an effort to soften that pain, the $2.2 trillion bill signed by President Trump on March 27 expanded unemployment benefits to include gig and contract workers, as well as self-employed people. The bill also added the $600-a-week payments to jobless workers as well as a one-time $1,200 check to most other adults.

The Internal Revenue Service reportedly has a plan to start sending out those one-time checks this week, but many Americans are not expected to receive them for months.

The broader provisions could not go into effect immediately since most had to be carried out by state labor departments. Before those agencies could act, they needed to adjust systems and rewrite software.

In Georgia, the Labor Department is inundated with an unprecedented wave of claims for jobless benefits. Last week, the department reported it had processed 133,820 applications for unemployment insurance – three times more than the worst week of the Great Recession. This week’s report, due Thursday, is expected to be worse.

One of the most dramatic pieces of the new law was the expansion of jobless benefits to contractors, gig workers and the self-employed. Department of Labor systems are still not ready to handle those applications – but they are getting close, Cartwright said.

Georgia’s Labor Department is working from guidelines issued this week by the U.S. Labor Department setting out how to process applications from gig and contract workers.

Some pro-worker advocates worry that the guidelines are too narrow, that they offer state officials excuses for rejecting gig worker applications. But Cartwright said that the state is not looking for ways to rule out payments. “We are going to try and get as many people covered as possible.”

Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, said the states should have some wiggle room within the guidelines.

“The way they are written, they look quite narrow,” she said. “I am trying to make the case that states may have more flexibility than it appears.”

It’s not an academic question for tens of thousands of Georgians.

For instance, Jim Hart, 63, of Buford wasn’t eligible under the old rules. He is self-employed, selling audio and video systems to businesses and consumers and believes he should receive benefits under the new law.

Although his wife has been able to keep working, his business is on hold, he said. “We can survive for a couple of months like this.”

The huge federal package adds 13 weeks of benefits to whatever a state provides. For years, Georgia has provided only 14 weeks of jobless benefits. But as the crisis deepened — and before Congress passed the relief package — the state raised that to 26 weeks.

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