Georgia jobless claims still surging, some workers still waiting

New jobless claims in Georgia remained at unprecedented highs for a 14th consecutive week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Officials processed 117,885 new claims in the week ended June 27, down only slightly from the previous week, signaling a labor market still in distress despite two months of slow recovery from pandemic-triggered shutdowns that had paralyzed much of the economy.

About 655,000 Georgians are now receiving unemployment benefits, more than one of every eight people currently in the labor force. That does not include people who have chosen not to file or been discouraged from completing applications by an online, sometimes frustrating process.

More than 2.8 million applications have been processed since mid-March, some duplicates, some fraudulent and some temporary claims from workers who have since been called back to jobs.

The Department of Labor, with staffing aligned to low unemployment, was swamped with thousands of calls and emails going unanswered. The department has added staff, brought back retirees and worked extra hours as it tries to make its way through the backlog.

More than 90% of people with valid claims have been receiving payments, said Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler.

But even that means tens of thousands of jobless workers waiting weeks or more for payments.

Ieshia Hayes of Decatur lost her job at a warehouse in mid-May, filing for benefits online, since Department of Labor offices have been closed to the public during the pandemic. But she hasn’t received payment. She had trouble accessing her account and couldn’t get help fixing the problem.

“I left 40 messages and haven’t received a call back or anything,” she said.

A 28-year-old single mother, Hayes fears becoming homeless since she cannot now pay the rent. “I can’t be outside with my kids.”

For many people, the economy is not yet offering an alternative to those benefits.

Tens of thousands of Georgians relied on gig or contract work that depends on consumers willing to venture into public, said Dmitri Koustas, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies the labor market.

“When the pandemic came, the gig economy just collapsed. And there is quite a lot of uncertainty at the moment. We don’t know how long the crisis will last.”

Jovan Mikell, 36, of Columbus, had been getting gig jobs through Steady, an Atlanta-based app that also helps workers manage their finances. Mostly, she had been driving for Lyft, averaging more than $300 a day, when the pandemic hit.

“First, the calls went down, then the volume went all the way down to nothing,” she said. “There’s rent, there’s bill collections. I have to keep paying for my car. Everything started hitting me at once.”

Because she wasn’t on anyone’s payroll, she’s been getting payment through federal emergency pandemic funds. That includes a $600-a-week boost to benefits, which is set to expire at the end of this month.

“I just hope they don’t cut off the $600,” she said. “That is really helping.”

While 1.43 million initial jobless claims were filed in the U.S. last week, the federal government also announced that the economy added a record 4.8 million jobs last month. Many of the positions were part of rehiring in restaurants, hotels and health care, where patients were again seeking non-emergency treatment.

But the economic recovery appears tenuous, especially as coronavirus cases surge again in Georgia and many other parts of the country.

Troy Schulman, a Dunwoody dentist, reopened his office in May and brought his six employees back to work.

Things started slow, then picked up. Yet some patients were still too concerned about the virus to get back in the chair, opting to hold off for now.

A similar anxiety hangs over providers, Schulman said. "You have to be optimistic, but you worry that you'll have to shut down again. And if one of my staff gets sick, I'll have to shut down for two weeks."

Georgia has recently announced a series of company expansions. For example, Wellmade is adding 240 jobs in Bartow County, SK Innovation will expand by 600 jobs in Jackson County and CFL Flooring in Gordon County will add 300 jobs.

But those jobs are not available now, even if they were convenient to job seekers in metro Atlanta.

The massive job cuts – and the lack of work for many – have chased many people out of the workforce: The number of people either working or seeking work in Georgia has shrunk by about 250,000 since February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Georgia jobless claims at historic levels

Week ending

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

May 30: 149,163

June 6: 135,254

June 13: 131,997

June 20: 125,725

June 27: 117,885

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

Trajectory of Georgia’s labor market crisis

Recipients of jobless benefits, week of June 27: 655,000

Recipients of jobless benefits, week of Feb. 29: 25,079

Workers in labor force, Feb.: 5,156,347

Workers in labor force, May: 4,900,137

Officially unemployed, Feb.: 161,147

Officially unemployed, May: 475,338

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics