Georgia jobless claims soar amid continued delays in benefit payments

With much of the country at home, businesses closed and events canceled, metro Atlanta took an unprecedented economic hit in April. Empty planes in a quiet airport were emblematic of the overall shutdown.

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With much of the country at home, businesses closed and events canceled, metro Atlanta took an unprecedented economic hit in April. Empty planes in a quiet airport were emblematic of the overall shutdown.

Georgia’s jobless ranks continue to surge, despite a shelter-in-place order that expired at the end of April.

The state Department of Labor processed 165,499 initial jobless claims last week, with many businesses continuing to lay off workers even as others reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 2 million claims seeking unemployment benefits have been handled since mid-March. While that includes duplicates, mistakes and some outright attempts at fraud, nearly half the claims have been judged as valid by authorities.

"It is a massive task that we are undertaking right now," said Mark Butler, state labor commissioner.

Starting in late March, that wave of claims overwhelmed a staff set up to handle a low-unemployment economy. Many thousands of jobless Georgians waited weeks for their application to be handled and for payments to start.

The department knows that many are still waiting.

Some processing can be automated, but many tasks must be done by a staff member, Butler said. “The unemployment system is not meant to pay people quickly, it is meant to pay people carefully.”

Despite the addition of extra workers – retirees, contractors and inter-agency transfers – the department has not come close to eliminating the backlog.

“If a claim is perfect, if there’s no issue, if the employer is in agreement, you are probably talking realistically about 30 to 35 days right now,” Butler said.

And for many, the delay has been even longer.

Rico Blalock of Peachtree City filed in March after being laid off from his job as a waiter at a local branch of a restaurant chain. The 21-year-old student said his claim was delayed partly because his former bosses listed his address as his Kennesaw State dorm.

But fixing that has not resulted in a payment.

In the meantime, Blalock has depleted his savings and moved back in with his mother.

“I feel lost in the system,” he said.

That system is one of the least generous in the country, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But since March 21, Georgia has paid about $1.1 billion in state benefits, in addition to passing along federal emergency payments to workers.

Those payments have trimmed 35% from the state’s trust fund that pays those benefits.

The department has also issued about $3 billion in payments from several federal emergency programs.

Since Gov. Brian Kemp lifted many restrictions at the end of April, many businesses have reopened, including some restaurants, which means some workers being recalled. However, even many of the open businesses must stick to social distancing protocols, which can mean fewer customers and a thinner staff.

Nationally, about 2.1 million initial unemployment claims were filed last week, down 323,000 from the previous week.

In a separate report also issued Thursday, the state Department of Labor said that metro Atlanta had lost a stunning 293,800 jobs last month while the official unemployment rate jumped to a record 12.7%.

That job loss was nearly five times as high as the previous worst, suffered during the harshest month of the Great Recession in 2009.

That figure does not include residents who have dropped out of the labor force altogether. Atlanta's labor force fell last month by nearly 200,000, according to the Department of Labor.

And the continued flood of jobless claims virtually guarantees that May’s numbers will be even worse.

Employment in the region during April was 400,626 below the level of a year earlier, a retreat that takes Atlanta back to the jobs levels of mid-2015.

The statistics are grim, but the situation is temporary, said Butler. "I am going to go out on a limb and say that we are going to recover faster than most states."

Job openings are up, he said.

However, some cuts – including budget-balancing cuts to public employees – are still on the horizon.

Butler said he is asking that his department be spared from layoffs, which would only delay payments for thousands of Georgians who are already jobless.

Tamar Hallerman contributed to this story.

Monthly job changes in metro Atlanta

Worst loss, pre-pandemic: -59,100 (Jan. 2009)

Loss, recent: -293,800 (April 2020)

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor

Georgia jobless claims filed, week ending

March 7: 4,569

March 14: 5,445

March 21: 12,140

March 28: 133,820

April 4: 390,132

April 11: 319,581

April 18: 247,003

April 25: 266,565

May 2: 228,352

May 9: 242,772

May 16 177,731

May 23: 165,499

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Employment and Training Administration

Unemployment rate, metro Atlanta

November: 2.6%

December: 2.7%

January: 3.2%

February: 3.3%

March: 4.2%

April: 12.7%

Note: rate does not include those who drop out of the labor force

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics