Nationally, about 3.8 million people filed for unemployment insurance last week. In the past six weeks, roughly 30 million Americans have filed jobless claims.
In Georgia, the Department of Labor has sent out $388 million in benefits payments, with the average weekly benefit of $276.
Yet for many people, the money is still somewhere in the pipeline.
Two months ago, the state's unemployment rate was at historic lows, and new jobless claims were averaging about 5,500 a week. The Department of Labor was staffed accordingly, with fewer than half the employees it had about 10-12 years ago during the Great Recession.
So when this tidal wave hit, the department was swamped.
Its web site crashed, calls and messages went unanswered and tens of thousands of people waited for weeks for their applications to be handled and benefits payments to start.
Some are still waiting.
A year ago, Ellen Wavrek was making six figures as a sales executive. She was laid off for a few months, then took a more modest-paying job that she expected to be temporary – but not as temporary as it turned out to be.
The Buckhead woman lost that job March 30 as the pandemic crisis accelerated. She filed for benefits the next day and still has not received a payment, she said. "I can't talk to anybody at the department. I sent mail, I sent email. I called at all hours, at 8:01, at 3:59."
She said she has a few thousand dollars in savings, no health insurance and is worried about paying rent and utilities.
“I have nowhere to go, and I don’t want to be out on the street,” she said. “I am terrified.”
Adding to the frustration for many Georgians is trouble with the personal identification number – the PIN – required for a laid-off worker to apply for benefits and keep accounts updated. There is a PIN reset, but repeated attempts to get access can lead to being locked out.
Unfortunately, the crush on phone lines and email makes it difficult to reach someone at the department to ask for help, according to a number of Georgians.
Julie Tracy, who had been a manager for a finance company, was laid off and received two weeks of payments before she was locked out of the DOL system.
“I have not received benefits since March 13,” she said. “I have left repeated voicemails and emails over the last 45 days, with no response.”
To reset her PIN, the department’s web site instructed her to an area office, in either Cobb or Cherokee county, she said. “Which is what I have done numerous times. No response and no payments.”
On Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp said he was lifting the state's shelter-in-place order, but urged Georgians "to stay at home whenever possible."
In the past week, Kemp lifted restrictions on many businesses, including restaurants, gyms, barbershops and bowling alleys. Despite that, many businesses that closed have decided – at least for now — to remain shut.
But some companies, afraid they won’t survive without income, have reopened, which puts some workers in a bind: If employers call them back, but the employees’ concerns about the coronavirus convinces them to stay home, they will lose their benefits.
The pressure is twofold, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.
“Reopening too soon will just cause another wave of infections and a worse unemployment crisis in the long run,” she said. “Not to mention that the people who will be going back to public-facing jobs are people who don’t earn much money.”
In the meantime, many people are still out of work and depending on unemployment benefits to get them through.
Sarah Sims of Woodstock lost her work as a film extra when the industry shut down. Widowed in 2018, she had been putting her life back together when the virus struck.
Under the new law, she is eligible for federal benefits, including a $600-a-week supplement. And Sims is getting anxious as she waits for the money to start.
She owns a home and was relieved to have her mortgage company delay payments for three months.
“But they did this at the start of March, and that grace period will soon be up.”
Recent layoff notices
Stein Mart Distribution Center, Lithia Springs: 121 jobs
Greyhound Lines, Atlanta: 78 jobs
Enterprise Holdings, College Park: 73 jobs
Enterprise Holdings, Norcross: 232 jobs
Select Medical, Atlanta: 69 jobs
Hertz, College Park: 161 jobs
Sodexo Magic, Atlanta: 216 jobs
Source: Georgia Department of Labor
Georgia jobless claims, week ending
Feb. 29: 5,538
March 7: 4,569
March 14: 5,445
March 21: 12,140
March 28: 133,820
April 4: 390,520
April 11: 319,581
April 18: 247,003
April 25: 266,565
Source: Georgia Department of Labor, Education and Training Administration
Share of March jobless claims that started payment
Best: Rhode Island, 51%
Worst: Indiana, 2%
National average: 14%
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Century Foundation