Government data shows Georgia unemployed was at a record low in February. That is about toe dramatically change. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Photo: LM Otero
Photo: LM Otero

Jobless claims soar in Georgia — worse likely coming

Filings for unemployment benefits have soared by roughly 400% this week, enough to sporadically overload government web pages, officials said Thursday.

With concern about the coronavirus intensifying, the Georgia Labor Department on Wednesday closed Career Centers around the state and asked laid-off workers to file claims online.

However, the surge of filings was too much for the system, said Labor Department spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright. “We are encouraging people to file at off-peak hours.”

The page used to file for unemployment was inaccessible much of Wednesday. It was operating on Thursday but was sometimes slow to load.

Cartwright said the state was not ready to release exact figures yet on the increase in filings. But, she added, “We are seeing as many claims filed in a day as we usually see in a week.”

The most recent public data showed 5,538 Georgia claims filed during the week ending Feb. 29. That implies more than 27,000 people requested unemployment benefits this week.

Georgia’s worst month during the Great Recession came in January 2009 when about 150,000 workers filed for unemployment. The unemployment rate was in double-digits for more than a year, cresting at 10.6%.

Like most of the country, metro Atlanta has seen events canceled in the past week, while many restaurants, bars, shops, theaters and music venues have shut down.

Bottles & Bones owner Rob Taranto wanted to stay open three days a week, but said Wednesday he will close the Suwanee restaurant, laying off most of his 45-person staff.

Many people are confused about who is responsible for filing claims, the state Labor Department said.

Workers who have been laid off should file for benefits on their own.

However, employees who still have jobs — but no work, because their business is temporarily closed — should not file the claims. In those cases, the company is responsible doing so.

Jobless benefits in Georgia average 43% of the worker’s pay, just slightly below the national average, said Michele Evermore, policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project.

She sharply criticized the duration of benefits – just 14 weeks, reduced from 26 weeks by the Georgia legislature several years ago. Even in a strong economy, 14 weeks is not enough time and it will be woefully inadequate during this crisis, she said.

As jobless claims rise, they will likely trigger a federal law that extends the duration, but workers will get benefits for a maximum of 21 weeks.

Also Thursday, the state released its February jobs report, data collected before the shutdowns of restaurants and offices and the resulting flood of layoffs.

The unemployment rate last month remained unchanged at 3.1%, the same level as December. That was the lowest jobless rate the state has recorded since the government started keeping track in the 1970s.

In the 12 previous months, the state’s economy had added 48,000 jobs.

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