Lags in unemployment payouts put target on Georgia labor commissioner

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler says he plans to run for a fourth term. For the first time since his initial campaign for the office, another Republican has announced plans to run for the job.

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Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler says he plans to run for a fourth term. For the first time since his initial campaign for the office, another Republican has announced plans to run for the job.

For more than a year, out-of-work Georgians have complained about delays in receiving their unemployment benefits to help sustain them during the pandemic.

Those shortfalls have put a magnifying glass on the state’s Department of Labor and a target on the back of the agency’s commissioner, Mark Butler.

Butler says he plans to run for a fourth term, though he has not made a formal announcement.

“My (campaign) plans have not changed,” he said. “But I’m more focused on the work right now.”

Though he’s faced a Democratic challenger in all three of his prior races for the office, Butler has also drawn a Republican primary opponent this time around — the first he’s faced since he first ran for the office in 2010.

Bruce Thompson, a Republican state senator from White, announced earlier this year that he would be running for labor commissioner, but he declined to call it a challenge of Butler.

“He hasn’t announced that he’s running for reelection,” Thompson said. “I’m not challenging the commissioner. I’m challenging the performance of the agency.

“Both Georgians and legislators could not get through (to unemployment offices). It’s important that an agency exists to serve the people.”

The Georgia Department of Labor has disbursed more than $22 billion in unemployment benefits since March 2020, when the pandemic shutdown triggered an avalanche of layoffs and the federal government responded with an unprecedented series of measures to support the jobless.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government gave those receiving unemployment benefits an additional $600 a week. That supplement was cut to $300 a week in August.

With businesses making a case that federal unemployment benefits have kept many potential workers on the sidelines amid a labor crunch, Gov. Brian Kemp announced last month that the federal supplements to Georgians would be eliminated Saturday.

ExploreAs federal jobless payments cut, Georgians still wait on claims

There were 22,524 initial claims filed between June 7 and June 13, Butler said. Most of those were from people who have quit or were fired. Very few people are being laid off now, Butler said.

“A person who gets laid off, their stuff gets processed very quickly,” Butler said. “The quits and fires, they take longer and most of the time they’re not going to be eligible (for benefits). Then most people turn around and appeal that decision, and that’s like going through a court proceeding.”

For the past 15 months, even as the state processed nearly 4.9 million claims, hundreds of thousands of frustrated applicants have been unable to get reach overtaxed workers at the Labor Department on the phone or get their emails answered.

Thomas Moroney, a 74-year-old tax preparer, said he gets laid off annually after tax season, causing him to seek unemployment benefits to bolster his income. It’s something he’s done for several years, but he said he has not received any unemployment checks yet this year.

“Since April 15, I’m entitled to the claim,” the Augusta resident said. “The thing that bothers me the most is, you call and get nothing. ... Meanwhile, they’ve got an office down there and nobody answers the phone. They don’t talk to you. They haven’t talked to you in over a year.”

Agency offices have been shuttered to the public since the pandemic began. Butler said most of the services the career centers provided, such as a reemployment orientations — where unemployed Georgians are assisted with skills such as resume writing and interview techniques — are now being offered virtually. Job training and job searching are offered either online or at other facilities, such as technical colleges, and not at the career centers, he said.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration with the Labor Department since the early days of the pandemic.

Lawmakers narrowly passed legislation that would have weakened Butler’s position by creating a new job tasked with prodding the department to speed up processing unemployment benefit requests from jobless Georgians. Kemp vetoed the measure, saying it proposes “serious infringements on the separation of powers” guaranteed by the state constitution.

The labor commissioner is part of the executive branch of government. Under the Georgia Constitution, the General Assembly can’t interfere with the powers of either the executive or judicial branch.

Lester Jackson, a Democratic state senator from Savannah who has also launched a campaign for labor commissioner, said that many Georgians were hurt by the delays in processing unemployment claims during the pandemic.

“We need Georgians getting back to work, but we also need Georgians getting access to all of their benefits,” Jackson said.

Butler said much of the frustration is due to the general public not understanding the unemployment system.

“We asked legislators to help us be a point of contact for those who needed help,” he said. “Shortly after we put the word out for them to be our point of contact and they started getting calls, a lot of these same legislators who were criticizing us and wanting to run were complaining about having to help people. So if they think it was tough as a legislator, helping people, then they’re going to be in for a shock in this job.”