Preliminary settlement reached in suit against Ga. Department of Labor

The Georgia Department of Labor was sued in 2021 over allegations that it didn't properly process unemployment claims and appeals, leaving hundreds of thousands of Georgians in the lurch, waiting for payments and unable to reach staffers by phone or email.

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The Georgia Department of Labor was sued in 2021 over allegations that it didn't properly process unemployment claims and appeals, leaving hundreds of thousands of Georgians in the lurch, waiting for payments and unable to reach staffers by phone or email.

Class action case stemmed from unemployment benefits issues during the pandemic.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect additional comments from the state and plaintiff’s attorneys.

A preliminary agreement became public Thursday afternoon between the Georgia Department of Labor and attorneys who had filed a class action suit aimed at pushing the department to speed up its handling of jobless claims and questions from claimants.

But a little more than 24 hours later, the labor department threatened to pull out of the unsigned pact over statements made by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and a disagreement over a press release.

The preliminary deal, set to be finalized Sept. 1, pending court approval, calls for the DOL to improve its communications systems and eliminate remaining backlogs by the end of the year, according to attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center and Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore.

The law groups filed the suit on behalf of people waiting for claims or appeals to be resolved after the department was overwhelmed during the pandemic.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler says the department has been fixing its problems on its own, without the prodding of the lawsuit. Plaintiffs say the agreement will help ensure that.

“COVID-19 broke the Georgia unemployment system,” said Jason Carter, a partner at Bondurant, Mixson. “These new systems should provide timely information to claimants, reduce the number of chokepoints, and help ensure that the system won’t break again.”

In a Thursday press release, SPLC and the Bondurant firm said when the suit was originally filed in 2021, “hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed or an appeal to be heard.”

Butler said that the deal comes with many of the system improvements already underway. He emphasized that the agreement is still preliminary.

And he blasted Carter for making “false and misleading” assertions about the “proposed settlement” and GDOL.

“At no time in 2021 did the Department have hundreds of thousands of people waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed or an appeal to be heard,” Butler said in a statement Thursday. “GDOL was already making the improvements to its systems mentioned, before the lawsuit was even filed, but we were willing to consider feedback from their clients if it improved the customer experience. We’re disappointed that they chose to issue a statement disparaging the Department rather than continuing to work with us on this common goal.”

Friday afternoon, Butler issued another statement alleging that Carter had broken an agreement to issue a joint press release.

“We believed that by standing together in a joint statement we could show the public that two different sides can come together for the betterment of all Georgians,” the statement said. “There is no signed agreement and the actions of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in this case have seriously endangered any future agreements or discussions.”

Carter, for his part, said late Friday that he did not think he had violated the agreement.

“Throughout the process, we have worked really well with the DOL,” he said. We don’t understand why they are upset.”

Carter said his group’s statements were based on statements DOL officials made.

“I don’t know why they feel like this is a fight,” he said. “We settled the case, we reached an agreement and we think it’s a good outcome for people.”

The suit was originally filed in Fulton County Superior Court, then transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, which is based in Atlanta.

The department was bitterly criticized during the pandemic when it was overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of unemployment claims and the need to embrace and manage a number of new federal programs.

Last week, the department received 4,024 new initial claims for jobless benefits. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the number of claims was consistently in six figures, topping out at nearly 400,000.

The department went into the pandemic with far fewer employees than during the previous recession and with technology the agency itself has admitted was not ready for a tsunami of claims. DOL also had to grapple with protecting its workforce from COVID-19.

To protect staffers and claimants alike, the department closed its work centers around the state as the crisis mounted.

As a result, jobless Georgians often suffered through excruciatingly long delays in getting their claims handled and payments made, while claimants with questions often found it impossible to reach DOL staffers by phone or email.

The drop in jobless claims to pre-pandemic levels has meant an end to the huge delays in handling new claims. However, tens of thousands of Georgians are still waiting for earlier appeals to be handled, according to Carter.

The department was represented by lawyers from the office of the state’s Attorney General, Chris Carr.