Though there has been a crushing demand for caregivers to treat COVID-19 patients, hundreds of thousands of other healthcare workers have lost their jobs. (AJC file photo)

Nearly quarter-million Georgians filed for jobless claims last week

Georgia’s Department of Labor processed nearly a quarter of a million unemployment claims last week as the flood of virus-triggered job cuts continued, officials said Thursday.

The latest figures bring the total number of claims handled since the start of March to 1,849,382. That’s 37% of Georgia’s pre-virus workforce, a much higher share than the national average of about 22%.

More than 800,000 claims have been judged valid, and 575,000 Georgians have received at least their first payment, according to the department.

The crush of applications for jobless benefits seemed largely unaffected by the state’s tentative efforts to open up the economy after Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order expired at the end of April.

Last week’s 242,772 processed claims in Georgia was higher than the previous week’s 228,352, but down from a crest of 390,520 in the week that ended April 4.

“Trying even to get a job interview right now is really difficult,” Atlanta resident Ellen Wavrek said. “And right now, I’m looking for any kind of sales job I can find.”

A former sales executive in the fashion industry, Wavrek was laid off March 30 and filed for benefits the next day. She’s still waiting for the benefits to come through.

“I am tapped out,” she said. “I can make one more rent payment, and that’s it. I’ve been asking friends, but married people don’t want a single person bunking down with them.”

Nationally, just under 3 million new claims were filed last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More than 36 million Americans have filed claims since early March, pushing joblessness to Depression-era levels.

The pandemic pain has rippled through the economy, even though it started with deliberate closing of restaurants and bars and the cancellation of public gatherings.

Workers in hospitality have been hit hardest.

Nearly a half-million jobless claims in Georgia over the past eight weeks have been for residents employed in accommodation and food services, according to Mark Butler, state labor commissioner.

But the second-largest set of layoffs in that period have been in health care, which accounts for 221,519 claims. That is a sign that the crushing demand for workers treating COVID-19 patients has been accompanied by plunging use of other health services.

Yet even as the wave of layoffs rolls on, there is an undercurrent of hiring, according to online companies that track openings.

Job postings nationally in the first week of May were 39% lower than the same period in 2019, but there were slightly more openings than at the end of April, according to Indeed. Metro Atlanta listings are down 33%, according to  Glassdoor.

The biggest demand has come from AmazonWalmartKroger and Publix, which have been hiring to meet stepped-up shopping for necessities, both online and in stores.

But many lower-profile Atlanta nonprofits are also hiring, according to Work for Good, which lists jobs at nonprofit organizations. Among them, Gray Matters Capital is looking for an office manager; the Elaine Clark Center is looking for an educational coordinator; the Atlanta Speech School is hiring an assistant teacher.

And some furloughed Georgians have been heading back to work.

Goodwill of North Georgia, for example, had sent most of its 3,000 employees home, according to spokeswoman Tenee Hawkins. But this week, Goodwill reopened all 65 of its stores and 13 career centers and recalled its workers.

Still, job losses have far outweighed any hiring.

Since the middle of March, the increase in Georgia’s jobless claims was the largest in the country, according to an analysis by WalletHub, a Washington, D.C.-based company offering financial advice.

State officials cautioned that some people filing jobless claims now might not have been working before the coronavirus shutdowns and are applying now because of enhanced benefits.

The filings overwhelmed the state’s labor department, which had been staffed for the historically low, pre-pandemic unemployment. The department also had to construct a new system to manage claims from gig, contract and self-employed workers, who have been allowed to claim benefits for the first time.

Many workers have complained of long waits to receive payments and of being unable to contact staff for help.

Butler, the labor commissioner, said during an online teleconference Thursday that going faster could mean more fraudulent claims get through. “Remember that,” he said, “while everybody is pushing us to speed up, speed up, speed up.”

He acknowledged that his workers are at least several weeks behind in handling claims.

In an effort to improve its response, the department has brought back retirees, imported workers from other agencies and contracted with a private company. “It would have been a whole lot faster if they had used the IRS” to deliver enhanced unemployment benefits, he said. “But what’s done is done.”

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