Georgia jobless workers anxiously await payments, layoffs continue

The flood of layoffs caused by the coronavirus shutdowns has sent more Americans into unemployment than at any time since the Great Depression. Here, in a photo from May 9, 1938, people stand in line for their portions of a federal surplus of potatoes and cabbages. (AP Photo, file)

Although some businesses in Georgia have reopened, the flood of jobless claims has continued, and many thousands of workers still are waiting to receive their payments.

Last week, 266,565 claims were processed, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

While claims peaked in the first week of April, the bevy of jobless workers in search of help has continued. Since mid-March, nearly 1.4 million claims have been processed in the state – 28% of the workers in Georgia.

"We have issued more payments in the past six weeks than in the past four years combined," said Mark Butler, the state's labor commissioner.

The largest number of jobless claims have come from workers in hospitality and restaurants, Butler said. Roughly 80% of the state’s 504,000 workers in leisure and hospitality have filed jobless claims.

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%

Georgia: 20%

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Century Foundation

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