Georgia jobless claims still high as federal benefits end

ajc.com

Metro Atlanta jobless rate unchanged at 3.9% in May

Job growth is picking up, but the tempo is still too leisurely to snap up the unemployed Georgians being cut off from federal benefits this week.

About 15,400 jobs were added last month in metro Atlanta — accounting for virtually the entire state’s hiring growth — as the unemployment rate held steady at 3.9%, the Georgia Department of Labor reported Thursday.

“This is a step in the right direction, but we need to continue to get Georgians back to work,” said Mark Butler, the state’s labor commissioner.

The metro Atlanta economy has added 262,300 jobs since the worst of the pandemic-triggered shutdowns, but the region is still 119,200 jobs shy of its pre-pandemic level. Statewide, the economy has added more than 424,000 jobs but is still 185,400 jobs below its pre-pandemic level.

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The region will not recoup all the lost jobs until the end of next year or early 2023, predicted Jay Denton, chief analyst at ThinkWhy, which uses its LaborIQ software to analyze employment data.

Still, Atlanta ”is much farther along than most cities,” he added.

The state unemployment rate is 4.1%, compared to the national rate of 5.8%.

Georgia’s recovery would accelerate if fewer people had unemployment benefits, argues Gov. Brian Kemp, who has ordered the elimination of federal benefits as of Saturday. With 221,000 openings on the state’s job board, Kemp and Butler say ending payments will push many jobless Georgians to accept what is available.

Critics say the jobless need more time and that the cutoff will undermine the economy.

More than 4.9 million jobless claims have been processed in Georgia since the start of the pandemic.

Last week, the state labor department processed 20,698 claims, most of them people who have been unemployed for a year or more and are required to reapply to keep their benefits, officials said. While the lack of new layoffs is a sign that the economy is progressing, the number of re-filings means that many who are unemployed do not yet have work.

Georgia last week paid out $161 million in benefits, mostly federal money that the state will stop disbursing after this week.

More than 167,000 Georgians are still receiving benefits solely through federal pandemic programs, officials said. About 56,000 other jobless Georgians will lose the $300-a-week federal supplement, but will continue to receive some benefits from state unemployment insurance.

The state’s labor department has taken flak for being slow in processing claims, making payments and responding to claimants who have often been unable to reach staffers for help.

Many claimants say they filed applications and did not hear from the department for months, if at all. The department said recently that more than 136,000 people were still waiting for their cases to be heard, and many of them were appeals.

Last week, some jobless claimants filed a class action lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to find the state labor department in violation of the law for not paying benefits quickly enough. The claimants are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jason Carter, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter.

In a statement, Butler called it “another politically motivated lawsuit.”

But some sectors continue to lag, leaving some workers without options in their field. The number of jobs available in leisure and hospitality is still particularly depressed, and the number of good-paying jobs limited. And not every jobless Georgian had the blow of unemployment softened with benefits.

Anne Marie Delgado, 58, has not worked steadily since leaving a job as a home caregiver for an Alzheimer’s victim just before COVID-19 hit. As much of the economy shut down, the Augusta resident applied for unemployment benefits and was rejected because her job loss was not caused by the pandemic.

She couldn’t pay rent, lost her apartment and moved in with a friend. She did odd jobs and temp work, but wanted something steady so she can pay for her own place.

Help wanted signs abound, but offers have not, despite weeks of looking, Delgado said. “I’ve been applying at restaurants, hotels, places for the elderly.”

But her luck turned Thursday.

A local hotel has offered her a $12-an-hour job as a desk clerk, she said. “It’s nice to have some good news now and then.”

Weekly jobless claims in Georgia

Highest, pre-pandemic: 41,522 (Jan. 10, 2009)

Highest, during pandemic: 390,132 (April 4, 2020)

Average, year before pandemic: 5,548

Average weekly jobless claims, 2021

January: 31,928

February: 28,188

March: 28,436

April: 33,288

May: 25,853

Last week: 20,698

Metro Atlanta snapshots

Unemployment rate, May: 3.9%

Unemployment rate, a year ago: 10.2%

Lowest on record: 2.6% (Nov., 2000 and others)

Metro Atlanta, pandemic jobs

Compared to April, 2020: +262,300

Compared to Feb., 2020: -119,200

Number receiving jobless benefits in Georgia

State benefits: 56,000

*Federal program for gig and self-employed workers: 74,000

*Federal program extending state benefits: 93,000

Changes in remaining benefit programs, next week

-- End of $300-a-week federal payments to claimants

-- Claimants must show they are available to work

-- Claimants must show they are looking for work each week

-- Claimants cannot make more than $150 a week before their benefits are reduced. Had been $300.

*Ends June 26 by order of governor

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics