Georgia state audit criticizes labor agency’s pandemic response

Thousands waited for unemployment benefits

A state audit has sharply criticized the Georgia Department of Labor for its handling of unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Greg Griffith, the state’s auditor, said many claimants waited months for payments and many others could not reach staffers to ask for help with their claims. He pointed out multiple problems that exacerbated delays in the 79-page Department of Audits and Accounts report issued late last week.

A spokesperson for the DOL called the report flawed and said the department had been hampered by the sudden collapse of the economy, which caused an unprecedented surge of claims for unemployment payments.

The study was undertaken at the request of the House and Senate Appropriations committees in the state legislature, Griffith said.

While acknowledging that the department faced a tsunami of claims in 2020, it was frustrating to find that it could not tell him how many calls or emails went unanswered, Griffith wrote.

“The DOL does not have systems in place to track claimant inquiries, which leads to unfulfilled requests, delays in claims processing and additional inquiries,” Griffith wrote. The department “needs better data to manage the (unemployment insurance) program, particularly when claims increase.”

He pointed out delays caused by inadequate technology and planning, and poor communication with claimants.

DOL Commissioner Mark Butler said the report was unfair.

“No one had a pandemic plan in place,” he said. “The primary factors causing pandemic unemployment insurance delays were the unprecedented volume of claims, federal pandemic programs which required extensive new programming, and inadequate funding,” he said.

Because the pandemic’s economic impact was so sudden, it was wrong to judge DOL performance and planning against previous recessions, he said.

Initial claims, which had been fewer than 6,000 a week during early March 2020, rocketed within two weeks into six digits, peaking at 390,000 in mid-April.

During the first full year of the pandemic, the DOL paid about $14.6 billion in benefits, nearly 50 times the amount paid in 2019. Most of those benefits were paid under federal programs that been created to deal with the emergency — procedures that the DOL had to learn and manage.

ExploreRead the AJC's coverage of unemployed workers struggling to get benefits

And the DOL came into the pandemic with barely half the number of staffers it had coming out of the 2007-09 recession, said Kersha Cartwright, DOL spokeswoman. “You base your staffing on the unemployment rate, and we had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country when the pandemic hit.”

The chairmen of the state House and Senate appropriations committees did not respond to questions about the auditor’s report.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democratic member of the appropriations committee, said the report was spurred by “desperate calls from constituents who needed their (unemployment) benefits and weren’t even able to get anyone on the phone at the Department of Labor. People were hurting and they couldn’t get answers.”

She called it “incredibly frustrating” to think that DOL’s problems could have been fixed. “The DOL needs to completely modernize its claim system. Full stop.”

While the number of unemployment claims has fallen to pre-pandemic levels, some claimants say the department’s problems still linger.

Malik Ford, 42, of Atlanta said he filed for unemployment in January, but has had just two weeks of payment since. He admits to making mistakes in the process, at least partly because he has a vision problem. And after repeated phone calls, he has spoken to several DOL staffers, but he’s been told conflicting things and hasn’t been able to get his payment back on track, he said.

“I am not trying to get something for free,” he said. “I worked for unemployment. I had that job for seven years.”