Georgia jobless benefit claims surge, topping 300,000 again last week

The Georgia Deparment of Labor has been swamped with applications for jobless benefits. The department released its March report Thursday, but the flood of layoffs has only increased since then, officials said. (AJC file photo)
The Georgia Deparment of Labor has been swamped with applications for jobless benefits. The department released its March report Thursday, but the flood of layoffs has only increased since then, officials said. (AJC file photo)

State’s jobless rate posted record jump between February and March

The Georgia Department of Labor said Thursday it processed 318,581 claims for jobless benefits last week, as the avalanche of job losses continued because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state has processed about 861,000 claims – more than one-sixth of the state’s work force – in the four weeks through last Saturday and paid more than a half-billion dollars in benefits to jobless workers as it struggles to keep up with the surge.

"We are reaching unprecedented claim levels," said Mark Butler, the state's labor commissioner.

The huge number of claims means that many people who file will not receive payments for at least several weeks — and many who already filed will continue to wait for the money to show up.

“We have an agency where employees have been working almost every day for the past three or four weeks,” Butler told reporters during a teleconference. “If you had a thousand more lines in the call center, it still wouldn’t be enough to handle the volume right now.”

Efforts were further slowed by the need to craft systems to handle newly eligible workers, he said. “If they had asked us or any of the state labor departments, if this was a good idea, we would have told them no.”

Almost all of the processed claims so far have been for Georgians who had been on a company payroll receiving a W-2 form.

Starting this week, the department has begun processing applications for people not previously eligible for benefits. That includes gig, contract and self-employed workers, as well as employees of churches and non-profits, and workers with limited work history. The federal government expanded eligibility late last month.

Nationally, 5.2 million Americans filed weekly jobless claims last week. Roughly 22 million people have filed in the past month, quadrupling the number of people who are officially unemployed.

In Georgia, last week’s claims number was less than the week before, which was the largest on record.

The state paid benefits to 290,600 Georgians last week, about twice as many as received benefits through all of last year, Butler said.

Georgia this week also began processing $600 federal weekly supplements for those receiving state benefits. Those payments are part of the emergency relief package passed by Congress in late March and signed by the president.

Georgia posted a record increase in its unemployment rate in March, when the coronavirus shutdowns started.

The state’s labor department said Thursday the jobless rate rose from a historic low of 3.1% in February to 4.2% last month as the economy shed 7,000 jobs, the work force shrank and a flood of claims for unemployment benefits began.

That is the sharpest month-to-month increase for the unemployment rate on record, said Butler.

A separate government survey showed that the number of Georgians in the labor force – that is, either working or looking for work – fell by 22,434 in March.

The collapse of the labor market accelerated in April, so this month's numbers are expected to worsen dramatically. The highest jobless rate on record in Georgia was 10.6%, a level reached in 2010 after the Great Recession when about 500,000 Georgians were officially unemployed.

That number — 500,000 — is fewer than have filed for jobless benefits in the past two weeks.

That means more waiting for people like Diana McGaw of Savannah, who said she filed for jobless benefits more than a month ago. She said she has left more than 50 voice mails at either state or local labor department numbers and filled out the "contact us" form on the department's website 20 times.

“No emailed response back from DOL,” she said. “Not once.”

Long-time entrepreneurs, she and her husband work for themselves, producing videos for institutional clients. When the crisis struck, they lost a $150,000 project with a large university, she said.

“Never been on unemployment in my life,” she said.

A number of friends and neighbors have also lost jobs and filed for unemployment. No one she knows has received payment yet, she said. “We all feel helpless.”

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Georgia claims for jobless benefits, week ending

March 7: 4,569

March 14: 5,445

March 21: 12,140

March 28: 133,820

April 4: 390,520

April 11: 319,581

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank