Georgians ground down by waits for unemployment assistance

Montana Martin of Murray County was working and in college before she lost her Walmart job. Since she was no longer working, she could not get food stamps, because Congress passed regulations saying college students have to work at least 20 hours weekly to qualify.

Montana Martin of Murray County was working and in college before she lost her Walmart job. Since she was no longer working, she could not get food stamps, because Congress passed regulations saying college students have to work at least 20 hours weekly to qualify.

Many Georgians who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic and filed for unemployment payments have yet to see a cent, though the federal government pumped millions of extra dollars into the state.

They’ve waited for months, with bills piling up, as Labor Commissioner Mark Butler’s overwhelmed staff has tried to catch up. Two million claims for unemployment have poured into the office since mid-March. Despite the addition of extra workers – retirees, contractors and inter-agency transfers – the department has not come close to eliminating the backlog or answering all the requests for information and updates.

Lauren Crace, who recently left Hall County and moved to Florida, decided to help. The 33-year-old started a Facebook support group, called Georgia Unemployment Issues COVID-19, for those wending their way through the unemployment maze to share information, tips and hope. It has grown to 8,000 members.

“It took off because people were desperate,” Crace said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to her and five other members of the Facebook group to learn more about their experiences with the Georgia Department of Labor.

Crace lost her job, and Florida denied her unemployment claim because she had earned most of her income in Georgia the previous tax year. Crace applied in Georgia on April 26 and received unemployment payments two weeks later. But she remembered the help she had received on a Florida-centric Facebook group focused on navigating that state’s glitchy, overwhelmed system. So she created one for Georgians.

Lauren Crace created a Facebook support page for those wending their way through the state Department of Labor’s unemployment insurance application process. It quickly grew to about 8,000 members because people are “desperate” for help and information, Crace says.

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It’s been great, she said, to see Facebook messages from people after they finally receive payments. But she has also seen posts signaling despair:

“I can’t pay my bills. I haven’t got a dime.”

“We don’t have food in my house. It’s hard to support a 1-year old with no payment from unemployment and no job!”

“Someone (from the state Department of Labor) called me last Monday and told me someone would call me this week, but I don’t have time for that. I’m homeless with two little kids. It’s been over two months, and I don’t know what to do.”

“I am really running out of options here.”

Staff at the Georgia Department of Labor have been overwhelmed by more than 2 million applications for unemployment payments, leaving many Georgian’s waiting weeks or months for help while jobless. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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A father’s story

Josh Johnson’s greatest fear is being separated from his 14-year-old daughter. His gigs as a wedding photographer dried up as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. And, though he’s also an Uber driver, riders became scarce.

The 44-year-old Acworth resident worries his apartment complex will evict him for unpaid rent. With little income, he might have to move to his parents’ home in Maine, putting him more than 1,000 miles from his daughter. She splits her time between him and his ex-wife.

But he reassures his daughter: “Everything is going to be OK.”

Gig workers such as Johnson could qualify for unemployment benefits for the first time under new rules approved by Congress. He applied. But, for more than two months, he has waited for payments or at least notification that they will eventually arrive. “It is not possible to speak to anybody, to be told anything.”

His debts are growing.

“Up to this point, people I owe have been very understanding, but this can’t go on forever,” Johnson said.

More Uber work is available, he said, but he’s limiting how often he drives. If he earns more money, he won’t be able to qualify for unemployment benefits, he said. And the more he drives, he feels he risks exposure to the virus and passing it to his daughter and his ex-wife, a nurse in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit.

Josh Johnson fears eviction after not receiving unemployment payments.

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“I just imagine all those preemie babies riding around with me in the car,” he said.

“It is a tough because you don’t know what the right thing to do is,” he said. “There is degree of wanting to have a good work ethic and getting out there, but maybe the right thing to do is to stay at home. But the bills have to be paid.”

A double whammy

Montana Martin, almost 22 years old and 24 weeks pregnant, has been on medical leave from her job at a Walmart in Murray County in northwest Georgia since March 28. She’s concerned about the potential effects of COVID-19 on her baby.

She filed for unemployment April 5 and received a letter from the state Department of Labor on April 22, giving initial approval for her payments. She still has not received final approval, despite weeks of calls and emails.

After leaving her job, Martin, who is also studying medical administration at Dalton State University, applied for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She was denied because Congress passed a regulation saying students who don’t work at least 20 hours a week can’t collect food stamps.

She finally got a Department of Labor employee on the phone the last week of May. The worker told Martin to expect another call-back between June 8 and 12.

“I was expecting to get (unemployment) no later than five to seven weeks after I applied,” she said. “I knew it was backed up. But I did not expect it to take almost three months.”

Luckily, the baby’s father still works making $19 an hour, and their cars are paid off. They have only rent and living expenses and are squeaking by.

“But I’m sure once the baby gets here, it will be a little bit tougher,” she said.

His deadline is looming

Jai Green, of Atlanta, joined the Facebook group and discovered he was not the only person whose federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistant payments — for contractors and some other workers — stopped without explanation last month.

“I am one of thousands,” he said.

Green, 35, is a digital imaging technician in Georgia’s film industry, which crashed after the virus-related shutdowns. He got approved for PUA payments April 23, but they ceased coming in mid-May.

He has spent a frustrating month calling the state Department of Labor for an explanation. When he has gotten a person, rather than voicemail, they have been unable to help.

“They were able to talk to me, but really unable to help me, because they didn’t understand what was going on with my accounts. I wanted to know, can you fix it? The employees couldn’t tell me that.”

“Everybody would be less upset if we had answers. It’s definitely hard to get answers,” from the staff, he said.

“Fortunately, I know how to save,” he said.

But he is watching in growing anxiety as he depletes his bank account.

“Let’s see. Rent is due next week. I can probably last until the end of June if I haven’t received my payments or if the industry hasn’t opened.”

The phone went dead

Shonquil Richardson, 33, of Atlanta, works in one of the nation’s hardest hit industries — hotels. She was laid off from her housekeeping job for nearly six weeks beginning March 18.

She applied for unemployment, but has not received a payment.

Richardson was assigned by the company to another housekeeping job at a different hotel April 27. She fears her work will expose her, her three children, including a baby born in December, and her mother to COVID-19.

“I was forced to go back to work because I wasn’t getting any unemployment,” she said. “And me just having a baby, I couldn’t just sit at home.”

Shonquil Richardson of Atlanta lost her job in the hard-hit hotel industry in mid-March and is still waiting to hear from the State Department of Labor about unemployment. She was rehired April 27, but is still hoping to get unemployment payments for the six weeks of work she lost.

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It got tougher to make ends meet with more than a month of lost wages.

“And then I had to do some Instacart (deliveries) to pay for my car insurance. It still put me in contact with people, but I had to take a risk and jump out there so I could have car insurance,” she said

Multiple daily attempts to reach staff at the Department of Labor have produced no results.

“The number I did reach, somebody said they couldn’t help me. I had to talk to claims. But nobody in claims is answering,” she said.

The last time she called claims, she was put on hold and waited. And waited.

“And after two hours, the phone just went blank.”

A weight lifted

Nearly two and a half months after applying for unemployment for the first time in her life, 29-year-old Megan Papenfuss was still waiting for a payment.

Bills and stress had smothered her and her husband Blake, sending her blood pressure soaring and her eight-month pregnancy into high risk.

Her 3-year-old’s day care in the Columbus area closed. So Papenfuss, who lives just across the state line in Alabama, started bringing Maddy to work with her at the car dealership chain where she was making enough to be “a little above paycheck to paycheck.”

Eventually, the boss said no more kids in the office. And she wasn’t allowed to telework. He suggested she go on unemployment. Within a week she applied for unemployment benefits. Then, silence from the Georgia Department of Labor.

She called, emailed and reached out on social media dozens of times. She got a notice about turning in an affidavit, but the zip code on the address given by the state was wrong, she said, and one round of paperwork never arrived.

“Thank goodness my husband is still working,” Papenfuss said. He’s a service adviser at an agricultural equipment service company.

They received a $2,900 stimulus check, got lenders to defer mortgage and car loan payments and borrowed money from her parents to cover groceries and some insurance bills. By late June the house and car note deferrals are scheduled to end.

Tuesday, everything changed. Back payments for unemployment popped up in their bank account.

“It was awesome,” she said.

They immediately paid their house and car payments and repaid her parents, she said. “I felt like a 500-pound boulder was lifted off my shoulders.”