Georgia jobless benefit claims triple to nearly 400,000 in one week

More claims in seven days than in all of 2019 combined

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional details.

The Georgia Department of Labor said Thursday it processed 390,132 claims for unemployment benefits last week – handling more claims in seven days than during all of last year.

The staggering number confirms the extent of the sweeping, coronavirus-linked shutdowns across a wide swath of the state’s economy, but the pain was deepest in the hospitality and food services industries.

Georgia’s report echoed the numbers nationally: 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. The previous week saw more than 6.8 million.

"This is an unprecedented economic catastrophe," said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, during a conference call with reporters Thursday. "More than one in ten American employees has applied for unemployment during the past three weeks."

A week ago Georgia's labor department reported processing 133,820 applications for jobless benefits - already roughly three times higher than the biggest weekly tally during the last economic downturn.

At the peak of job losses after the Great Recession a decade ago, after several years of layoffs, nearly 500,000 Georgians were unemployed. But in just the past three weeks, 536,092 jobless Georgians have been processed.

That figure does not include many people who have been unable to file claims because of overloaded computer systems or people who have simply not tried yet. It does not include workers who have no internet connection and were unable to reach state labor department workers on the agency’s often swamped phone lines.

That figure also does not include most gig and contract workers or people who are self-employed, even though the $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress in late March and signed by President Donald Trump extended jobless coverage to those workers.

That’s because state agencies have not yet been able to process claims for such workers.

After getting guidelines from the federal government and scrambling to rewrite software, Georgia's labor department now says it will be ready to take those applications next week.

That change holds hope for Derek Kirkman, 50, of Alpharetta.

Kirkman, a freelancer working in advertising, was days from a new contract when the company canceled all freelancers. “If you can't sell a product there's no need to advertise for it.”

His situation could be a lot worse, he said. His wife is still employed, and there’s the chance that he might still see some cash from work he’s already done.

“I have invoices outstanding from agencies,” Kirkman said. “Hopefully, they're able to pay because they're getting hit hard too, I suspect.”

That ripple effect is a worry, economists say: People who aren’t getting paid, have trouble paying their own bills.

For example, the number of metro Atlanta renters who paid their rent this month dropped by 9.4%, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council and RealPage.

When restaurants close, their suppliers suffer. When conferences are canceled, caterers lose. When planes don’t fly, maintenance crews don’t work.

And those effects are happening quickly, since this downturn was faster and deeper than any since the 1930s.

But reversing the spiral might be easier than during economic downturns of the past.

After a decade of relatively steady growth, the economy had started the year strong. The economic plunge was mostly intentional, the result of authorities trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Some economists compare it to an induced coma, the patient still healthy but kept unconscious while being treated.

Georgia officials also say jobless benefits next week will include the $600-per-person weekly supplement that is part of the federal government’s emergency package.

Payments are retroactive to last week’s benefits, according to a state labor department spokeswoman, and will continue through July. They are in addition to Georgia’s benefits, which average 43% of a jobless worker’s income and are capped at $365 a week.

In the meantime, the economic carnage continues. Among layoff notices filed with the state’s labor department in the past several days:

-- Candler Road Dental of Marietta, 175 jobs.

-- Benevis Dental Practice Management Services of Marietta, 158 jobs.

-- Uncle Julios restaurants of Atlanta, 73 jobs.

-- Larson-Juhl of Norcross, 71 jobs.

-- Direct Auction Services of Fairburn, 58 jobs.

Jobless claims in Georgia

Week ending

February 22: 5,030

February 29: 5,538

March 7: 4,569

March 14: 5,445

March 21: 12,140

March 28: 133,820

April 4: 390,132

Source: Georgia Department of Labor

Jobless claims in the United States

Week ending

March 21: 3.3 million

March 28: 6.9 million

April 4: 6.6 million

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics