White collars also among the jobless still waiting for benefits

Low-wage hourly workers hit hardest, but coronavirus felt across jobs

Dan Damery of Kennesaw says he had a six-figure sales job until he lost it in March.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in Georgia, he's still waiting for his unemployment benefits as the Georgia Department of Labor tries to process a tidal wave of claims unleashed by the coronavirus.

The most vulnerable and hardest hit Georgians during the crisis have been hourly workers who were laid off from service jobs like restaurants that were shuttered when the pandemic arrived in March. Such workers typically receive low wages, meaning they also had less opportunity to build up savings.

But a lot of people that had good-paying jobs are also joining the unemployment benefits queue and suddenly struggling to make ends meet. Whatever their circumstances before, many are now fretting, chewing their fingernails, and waiting.

"If it wasn't for the mortgage company helping me out, I wouldn't be able to make my payment," said Damery, a 52-year-old U.S. Air Force vet who was given a temporary reprieve on some of his bills.

Georgia's labor department is slated to report Thursday on last week's unemployment claims. In the previous six weeks, nearly 1.4 million claims were processed in the state – a record tally representing more than one of every four workers in Georgia.

In February, the state's jobless rate was a historically low 3.1%, jobless claims were averaging about 5,500 per week and the department was staffed accordingly. Then the crisis hit, thousands of businesses closed and the department was swamped with claims, emails and phone calls. For the first time, the department also is trying to process contract, gig and self-employed workers newly eligible for benefits under a rescue package approved by Congress.

Georgia's labor department officials acknowledge that it is taking an average of 28 days from a filing to start paying benefits to a worker – and longer for many of them.

Damery had worked for a roughly $13 million-a-year company selling asphalt and other construction materials to multi-family housing projects. As the health crisis escalated, orders were postponed or canceled and the company scrambled to cut costs. He said he was let go March 20 and filed for unemployment benefits the next day.

He said he has tried everything he could think of – email, phone, social media – to reach state officials in the hope of speeding up payment or at least getting some information. “You call the Labor Department and it says, ‘Press one to have someone call you back,’ but you know nobody’s ever going to call you back.”

During March, more than half of the first wave of U.S. layoffs were among hospitality workers, which includes restaurant and hotel staff, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. About 8% of job cuts were in the mostly white-collar ranks of the corporate sector.

In Georgia, according to the state labor department, 42% of jobless claims processed in the past six weeks were from the hospitality sector. Another 12% were administrative and support workers, including everything from secretaries to C-suite executives.

ADP, which collects company payroll data, estimated Wednesday that 20.2 million private-sector U.S. jobs were lost during April. The government releases national data for April on Friday.

Job openings for Atlanta are 33% lower than they were a year ago, according to Glassdoor, which tracks job listings and company reviews. That is in line with a survey by Homebase, which makes software for businesses, that showed 36% of Atlanta companies were not operating as of May 3.

The intensity of the maelstrom makes economists reluctant to predict a quick rebound even as President Donald Trump and many governors push for a quick reopening.

Georgia, one of the last states to institute shelter-at-home rules, has been among the first to lift them, despite many health experts warning that the move was premature while COVID-19 cases continued to rise. Gov. Brian Kemp in recent weeks has allowed many businesses that had been ordered shut to reopen, including hair and nail salons, gyms, bowling alleys and restaurant dining rooms.

Still, with the coronavirus still spreading, economic recovery may be halting at best, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor. “Because of the public health issues, it is very difficult to predict how long it will go on.”

The lack of hiring makes jobless benefits crucial – even for people who had been doing well before the crisis.

One Cobb County woman, who did not want her name used, lost a job as a portfolio manager. She had started to receive benefits when – for reasons she did not understand — her DOL account was suspended March 13.

She was unable to get through to someone for help, she said. “I tried calling, leaving messages, emailing the local office and emailing the main web site. I never had a response back.”

This week, she finally got through and was told she’d likely receive a payment within a few days.

Damery, the Air Force vet, is optimistic that the economy is shifting back into gear.

“I’ve been putting applications out,” he said. “I’m hoping to be working in the next two or three weeks. I’m really hoping.”

That hope depends on a broad recovery that would trigger spending on big projects.

His wife is still working an administrative job in a doctor's office at Northside Hospital. The job, after taxes, brings home about $500 a week, much less than his did. But his wife's job also includes health coverage.


Today: The government will release the latest weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits.

Friday: The release of the unemployment report for the month of April is expected to show a huge increase in the jobless rate.