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Opinion: Ga. needs to improve handling of unemployment claims

The loose consensus of economists and many Washington lawmakers contacted by McClatchy is to keep giving the millions of people out of work that extra $600 a week, or at least some emergency payment, as unemployment benefits. (Dreamstime/TNS)
The loose consensus of economists and many Washington lawmakers contacted by McClatchy is to keep giving the millions of people out of work that extra $600 a week, or at least some emergency payment, as unemployment benefits. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia legislators have been hearing disturbing reports about the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) -- reports that can be backed up by GDOL’s own data: Tens of thousands of Georgians cannot get through to GDOL to find out why they aren’t getting their unemployment benefits. Phone lines are busy and emails go unanswered. Some of their situations are dire, like a single mother I heard from who had $10 left and no food for her or her child.

The Georgia Department of Labor acknowledges that almost 10% of post-pandemic claimants, more than 100,000 people, have yet to receive any benefits.

Additional people report that their benefits suddenly stopped, and they can’t find out why. If even one small thing goes wrong, like an employer’s clerical error in a report, or a PIN that stops working, people are being left in the dark. When benefits stop, claimants have no way to reach the GDOL to resolve the issue.

Commissioner Mark Butler has said “Our overall commitment is at a level that one day historians may revisit and deem a noble effort.” I contend that the Department of Labor is falling far short of their A-game. We are facing a humanitarian, health, and economic crisis, all wrapped in one, and relief is needed now.

We have to act immediately with the expectation that this pandemic is going to be around for a long time, and many industries will not recover. People need the benefit of time that unemployment payments offer them - time to find new jobs or retrain without ending up on the street in the middle of a pandemic with no food and no housing.

If we do nothing, GDOL’s failure will eventually cause damage to other parts of the economy: mortgages will go into default; evictions will spark a dramatic increase in homelessness; state and local governments as well as school systems will experience revenue shortfalls.

The Century Foundation, a think tank that studies unemployment systems, recommends technology options beyond simply relying on phone lines and email. For instance, they say the GDOL should update its technology with a queue system that allows for triaging the most needy cases, like the single mother with $10 in her pocketbook.

Hiring more workers to address the backlog would require training, which the Commissioner Butler has said they don’t have time for right now. But business as usual won’t work either.

Our Georgia National Guard has been successful in other pandemic response areas like helping to clean nursing homes, staffing hospital admissions and food banks, and running school lunch programs. Perhaps DOL could use the Guard to answer phones and follow triage protocols, freeing up GDOL staff for the real problems.

The Governor and the Commissioner of Labor need to equip Georgia for the economic recovery they have been promising - by giving people time to handle a layoff, furlough, or dried-up employment market. Our state has talented, committed people who have the ingenuity to fix this, but it’s going to require an acknowledgement first that the Department of Labor is failing our people.

State Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Chamblee.