Lawmakers target Georgia labor commissioner over unemployment backlog

Credit: Tyler Estep

Credit: Tyler Estep

Nancy Lewis-Pegel owns a booking and management agency for musicians. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing live music into a long intermission, the industry — and Lewis-Pegel’s income — have been rocked hard.

So earlier this year, the 58-year-old from Decatur applied for unemployment through the state of Georgia. She was entered into the system on May 3, she said, but has been waiting for final confirmation, and that much-needed money, ever since.

Lewis-Pegel is just one of the tens of thousands of Georgians still hoping for relief as the state works through its backlog of claims.

“It’s getting desperate, four months in,” she said. “There’s only so much you can do.”

Lewis-Pegel watched Monday morning as a group of Democratic state legislators held a press conference outside of a Department of Labor office near Decatur. The lawmakers, who have repeatedly clashed with labor commissioner Mark Butler in recent weeks, said the current situation is the result of a “horrible lack of leadership.”

Some 1.3 million Georgians have applied for unemployment since March. And while Butler touted his department’s hard work and its clearance rate — some 91% of claims that have been verified and in which payment was requested have gone through — the legislators said it’s not enough.

The cases of about 100,000 Georgians are still in limbo, though Butler said some of those people may not have actually requested payment because they ended up finding work.

“It’s not getting done,” state Sen. Elena Parent said, “because they do not care enough.”

Monday’s press conference was the latest in a recent string of demonstrations organized by Democratic state legislators. Following a protest outside a Department of Labor office in Gwinnett County last week, Butler cancelled a scheduled meeting with legislators, claiming their actions “almost started a riot.”

The commissioner called lawmakers’ actions “political grandstanding” and said his office has met with the Democratic caucus more than any other group. He called their suggestions “nonsense, as far as things that we should be doing.”

He said the current backlog is thanks largely to a spike in fraud and the time-consuming process of working through claims with “serious issues.”

“We’re already doing everything that can be done,” Butler said. “And to great effect.”

The legislators have demanded that Butler give priority to backlogged claims, immediately resolve claims that have been outstanding for more than 30 days, and set up a call center for those seeking help. Citing constituents that have had no luck contacting the office via phone or email, they also asked for Butler to reopen the department’s offices to the public.

They’ve been closed since March.

“Being overwhelmed is understandable in this situation,” state Sen. Sally Harrell said. “But being inaccessible is unconscionable, unnecessary and immoral.”

Butler said reopening offices to the public would only make things harder. He said the department has already seen “multiple positive cases” of COVID-19 and has had one employee die.

“It’s just a serious lack of understanding on their part,” Butler said.

State Rep. Karen Bennett, meanwhile, said the commissioner should “step up or step out.”

“Unemployment insurance is not about politics. It’s not about people asking for handouts,” she said. “It’s about hard-working Georgians who through no fault of their own have found themselves unemployed. So let’s keep it real.”