As the governor lifts restrictions, some workers could face a tough choice. If they refuse an employer’s order to work, they could lose eligibility for jobless benefits. (AP Photo/Martha Mendoza)
Photo: Martha Mendoza
Photo: Martha Mendoza

Gov. Brian Kemp’s new rules put some jobless Georgians in bind

Despite the governor’s decision to lift some restrictions on businesses, the right to receive unemployment benefits for most jobless Georgians has not changed, according to the state Department of Labor.

However, the move did change the calculation for employers – and that could put some workers in a tough spot, forced to choose between their sense of safety and their need for a paycheck.

On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp made the controversial decision to allow some businesses to restart operations Friday, including barbershops, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, bowling alleys and fitness centers.

Under the revised policy, restaurants, theaters and private social clubs will be allowed to open next week.

As of mid-day Wednesday, an official tally showed that 836 Georgians had died from the coronavirus and more than 20,000 had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Some business owners are worried that opening is still dangerous, even when taking precautions. And workers whose employer stays closed still will be eligible for unemployment, said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor.

“It is not our decision whether or not a business reopens,” she said. “We will just take care of employees that are laid off or that have those hours reduced.”

If workers return to work part-time, they may still be eligible for benefits because the DOL has raised the amount that a worker can make without sacrificing jobless benefits.

That exemption has climbed from $55 to $300 per week. So if a worker is eligible for benefits and goes back to work part-time, but makes no more than $300, he or she will still get benefits, Cartwright said.

Kemp’s decision to permit some openings was praised by some business groups. However, a sampling of small businesses this week showed that some are conflicted, worried about paying the rent and staying in business, but uncertain about safety.

Some also said they’ve heard from their customers who think it’s too early to reopen. But some are going to reopen and will require employees to return.

In a joint statement with Kemp, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said he hoped that employers could work with employees “to determine a successful return-to-work plan.”

But if their employer reopens and insists that they return to work – even if the employee does not feel safe – the law does not consider them unemployed, Atlanta labor lawyer Amanda Farahany said. “If there is work available, and they are refusing to go to work, then they will not be eligible for unemployment.”

Those workers will have a tough choice, said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“No worker should be forced to choose between their health and their ability to put food on the table,” he said.

On Wednesday, 21 Democratic state representatives sent Butler a letter asking that he provide information about how the department is protecting the health of workers who are being required to go back to work.

About 1.1 million Georgians have filed for jobless benefits in the past month, overwhelming the Department of Labor’s systems and leading to weeks of delays in getting payments out.

Raeanne Reddick of Atlanta was laid off in mid-March from a job as an event coordinator at Hotel Clermont. She filed for unemployment benefits March 20 and has been waiting for a payment, she said.

“Since then, I have emailed and left messages with the Department of Labor two to four times a week with no response,” Reddick said. “I’ve sent them my documents over and over and over again, still with no response.”

Adding to the flood of claims were applications from contract, gig and self-employed workers who previously had not been covered, but were added by federal law in late March. The Georgia Department of Labor did not start processing claims from those workers until this week.

Anyone who qualified for benefits and is still waiting for payments will be paid for their time out of work, even if they return to a job before payments are made, according to the Department of Labor.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this story

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