Jobless claims now include more than one-fifth of Georgia workers

A sign thanks employees outside of the Kroger on Lawrenceville Highway in Tucker on Wednesday afternoon April 15, 2020. Ben@BenGray.com for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Nearly a quarter of a million more Georgians filed jobless claims last week, the state Department of Labor said Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the economy.

That brings the total number of workers in the state who have filed for unemployment benefits to about 1.1 million over the past month, more than 1 in 5 Georgia workers.

The number of claims filed in the state last week was less than the week before, when 319,581 claims were processed.

Nationally, 4.4 million unemployment claims were filed last week, compared to 6.6 million the previous week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In Georgia, the hardest hit sector was food services and accommodation – not surprising, since restaurants and hotels were among the first and hardest hit by restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Nearly 68,000 claims were filed from the hospitality sector last week, according to Mark Butler, Georgia's labor commissioner.

But it was far from the only industry affected. Health care also has had significant layoffs, as dental appointments and non-emergency medical appointments are delayed. And many workers in retail and manufacturing are out of work.

A new federal law aimed at providing relief for the devastated economy made many gig, contract and self-employed workers eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time.

That likely includes hundreds of thousands of people in the state. And the vast majority of those claims have not been included in the numbers released by the department thus far. Of the claims processed last week, 94% were pegged to filings by an employer, according to Butler.

This week, the first batch of payments to those workers will go out, he said.

However, the deluge of filings that started in mid-March has so overwhelmed the department that most workers aren't receiving payments for weeks.

For example, Michael Hankins of Acworth filed his claim April 6. But he has yet to receive a check.

He had been employed as a “temp-to-hire,” working toward a permanent job. When the crisis hit, he was let go.

“The company wants me back, but it can’t happen until mid-June probably,” he said.

He can pay next month’s rent. After that, he’s draining what’s left of his savings.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp made the controversial decision on Monday to allow some businesses that were forced to shut down 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.

Some workers who choose to continue to shelter in place, despite their employers starting up operations again, could still be eligible for jobless benefits, Butler said.

“These people may have some health issues, some medical issues, or they may be taking care of someone with medical issues. They may be over 60 years old or taking care of someone over 60,” he said.

Workers also likely would be covered if they must take care of children whose schools are closed,

he said. “You are going to have a lot of cases here where you don’t have to cut people off unemployment.”

With layoffs at unprecedented levels and the length of the crisis unpredictable, many have questioned whether the state can keep paying benefits. Butler said he believes the trust fund is solid.

“There is $2.2 billion in the trust fund,” he said. “You are probably talking about six or seven months if we continue to pay out benefits at the rate we are doing so today.”

Even if jobless stays high and the fund runs dry, the state can borrow from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as it did during the job losses following the Great Recession, he said.

The Labor Department also released the metro Atlanta jobs report for March, when the coronavirus shutdowns were just getting started. During the month, the unemployment rate increased to 4.2% from 3.3% in February.

The April report is expected to be much worse.

Most jobless claims last week in Georgia 

Accommodation and Food Services: 67,774

Health Care and Social Assistance: 31,266

Retail: 30,672

Manufacturing: 28,597

Administrative and support Services, 18,140

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

Georgia jobless claims, week ending

March 14: 5,445

March 21: 12,140

March 28: 133,820

April 4: 390,520

April 11: 319,581

April 18: 247,003

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

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