Several dozen mothballed Delta Air Lines jets sit, a sign of how much of the economy has been idled by efforts to slow spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Photo: Charlie Riedel
Photo: Charlie Riedel

Georgia struggles to pay out jobless claims as labor dept overwhelmed

The state Department of Labor has paid out more than $200 million in state and federal benefits to Georgians since Sunday, but is still weeks from catching up to the massive wave of claims.

With the wave of job losses still growing – and understaffed state officials scrambling to adopt new rules – many jobless workers who filed for aid in March are still waiting.

“I am now at 17 business days with no check with a possible 11 to 16 more to wait,” said Dan Damery of Kennesaw, who sold asphalt and seal-coating before being laid off March 21 as the crisis chilled the business. “This has been very frustrating.”

Last week, Georgia’s labor department reported that more than half a million laid-off workers had filed claims in the previous two weeks. That does not include many who were unable to access overloaded systems or postponed filing.

And that was also before the flood of new applications Monday as the state began accepting claims from jobless contract, gig and self-employed workers whose income was shattered by the coronavirus shutdowns.

Money to pay claims by those newly covered workers will come from Washington. So will money to pay the $600-per-person weekly supplement that was part of the emergency relief package passed by Congress and signed by the president.

Despite federal funding, the states are responsible for handling those claims, typically made by people not on a company payroll receiving a W-2 form.

“That means we have to verify their wages and we have never before verified wages for someone without a W-2,” said Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Labor.

That forces the department to invent or retrofit processes according to federal guidelines.

Ultimately, many of the payments — especially the gig and contract worker claims — will be reimbursed by the federal government. But not if there are problems with the process, Cartwright said. “If we are audited and we didn’t verify the income, we would be in a heap of trouble.”

Georgia’s labor department this week started paying the $600-per-person weekly federal supplement, payments that go to anyone getting jobless benefits.

The federal relief package also included a one-time payment of $1,200 to most adults, but that money is to be disbursed by the Internal Revenue Service.

Frustrated workers complained that the state government was not ready. State officials agree.

“We absolutely were not prepared for this,” Cartwright said. “We were staffed for 3.1% unemployment.”

That was February’s jobless rate. The jobs report and a new rate for March will be released Thursday and, while it is likely to be unpleasant, it will almost certainly not reflect the extent of the ongoing economic pain.

A dozen years ago, as the economy slid into a recession that sent unemployment to double digits, the state Department of Labor had about 2,200 employees across the state. It now has fewer than 1,000.

Steep as the economy’s decline was in 2008, it was nothing like the crash of the past few weeks.

The department has asked retirees back to work. However, it doesn’t really have time to hire new workers, Cartwright said: All the department employees who would train new hires are now working on processing claims.

The pressure has only increased. Last week, the number of people on the department’s web site was four times as high as it had ever been. On Monday, it was double last week’s volume.

But to those waiting for help, knowing they are not alone is only a partial comfort.

Jordan Edwards, 34, a waiter recently laid off from a hotel in St. Simons Island, said he has repeatedly tried to get information from the Department of Labor.

“You can’t call, there’s no one to call,” he said. “Or you call and you’re on hold for three hours.”

The benefits should eventually come through, but waiting is difficult, Edwards said. “Until that happens, I will be living with a great deal of anxiety.”

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