Georgia senators press labor department to reopen local employment offices

For the past year Bill O’Neal has made more phone calls than he can count as he’s tried to get his unemployment claim straightened out.

O’Neal, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, has worked for the past 20 years at a manufacturing plant in Fairburn. When work started drying up during the pandemic last year, he and a lot of his coworkers had their hours cut.

His employer assured him they would handle filing for unemployment benefits to help cover the lost wages, but he said a paperwork glitch has resulted in endless problems trying to access his claim online. He’s made repeated calls to the Georgia Department of Labor’s headquarters and offices in Griffin and LaGrange. He even called Commissioner Mark Butler’s office to no avail.

“I have left messages at all three places every day,” he said. “Never got a phone call.”

Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, said O’Neal’s story is a “classic scenario” and one she and her colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly have heard hundreds of times about dealing with the labor department since the start of the pandemic.

“The problem is we are still hearing that story even though the number of claims have dropped drastically,” she said. “It tells me that government is not working for these people.”

Harrell and 51 of her Senate colleagues, Democratic and Republican, sent a letter this week to Butler urging him to share his plans for reopening the network of 41 local labor department offices, called career centers, that have been closed since the pandemic began.

“The State of Georgia continues to invest resources in having physical locations where Georgia citizens can get help finding jobs,” the Oct. 4 letter states. “Though on-line resources have been vital during the course of the pandemic, the digital divide is well documented, and many Georgians still have inadequate access to broadband connectivity or lack the technical skills to navigate online-only formats.”

The letter, signed by all but four senators, comes on the heels of an audit from the Department of Administrative Services criticizing the labor department for purchasing $1.1 million in free meals for department employees every day from March 2020 through this summer. Labor officials defended it as a way to protect workers and keep them “laser focused” on their jobs, but Harrell sees a failure to adapt.

“The rest of Georgia, the government as well as private businesses, they have figured out how to open up safety and function. The Department of Labor has yet to figure that out,” she said.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

The closed offices have sparked protests in recent months as citizens vent their frustration getting answers from the labor department, even as Butler stressed local offices are primarily there to help people find new jobs rather than process claims.

O’Neal said he left a handwritten note on the door of the labor department’s shuttered office in Griffin where it joined those of other workers desperate for answers about their claims. He said he believes he is owed thousands of dollars in benefits. He just needs to sit down with someone and work out whatever technical barrier is holding it up.

“Nobody can figure it out because you can’t walk into the Department of Labor and say this is what happened to me,” he said. “If they could only open the Department of Labor.”

Openings delayed due to delta variant

Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said there is a plan to reopen local offices, although it was delayed for 60 days due to the recent spike caused by the delta variant. Cartwright said positive COVID cases forced 24 local offices to shut down to employees due to outbreaks that resulted in hospitalizations and three deaths.

In the interim, the labor department is scheduling limited in-person appointments at offices around the state for people seeking career counseling or to be match with open jobs, she said.

“Of the career centers currently taking in-person appointments, customers are not showing up for 50% of the appointments that have been scheduled this week,” she said.

For some Georgians, the closure of their local office is a reminder of the difficulty they have experienced while the labor department struggled to deal with a tidal wave of pandemic-related claims. Since March 2020, the labor department has received more than 5 million jobless claims and paid out $23.1 billion in benefits, although many of those claims proved not to be legitimate or were duplicates.

But new claims have dropped to a mere fraction of their peak. On Thursday, the department reported 6,319 initial claims for the week ending Oct. 2. That is still higher than normal, but it’s a tiny number compared to those that poured in at the height of shutdown, which peaked in April 2020 with 390,132 initial claims in one week.

Cartwright said there is no current backlog of claims and “most of the requests from legislators are about individuals that have been denied benefits due to not being eligible.” She said there is no immediate plan to respond to the senators’ letter because a plan is already in place to reopen the offices.

An 11-month appeal

But the delays experienced over the past year and a half have been disheartening to people like Mandy Dunaway, a classical musician in Doraville who has been struggling to wrest benefits from the labor department.

Last year, Dunaway filed a claim under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program when COVID closed concert spaces, but that claim was denied. There is an appeals process when a claim is denied, so Dunaway started calling to set one up. And she called and called and called.

“I could show you my call log. I want to say it’s over 700 calls at this point. I’m an oboe player, and we tend to be very Type A and persistent,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited on hold for an hour and the call has simply hung up on me.”

It took 11 months and three weeks, but she finally got a hearing on her appeal last month — and won. She’s still waiting on the money.

In the interim, she spent all her savings, making ends meet by teaching music online as much as possible. She is a regular voter and has volunteered for political campaigns, but she said her dealings with the Department of Labor over the past year have shaken her faith in government.

“They’ve had 18 months to put measures in place,” she said.

Staff writer Michael Kanell contributed to this report.