Georgia has been open for a month—but returning to work is still complicated

Employees who feel uneasy going back to work could lose unemployment benefits, unless they're at high-risk or care for someone high-risk. And some businesses owners feel that they’re being forced to bring people back to work prematurely.

Re-opening businesses Georgia complicated
For many, the decision to re-open hasn’t been easy, nor has the decision to return to work.

Photograph by adamkaz/Getty Images

As artist Barbara Kruger noted in a terse and sobering opinion piece for the New York Times: “A Corpse is Not a Customer.” (That’s all it says, literally.) To Kruger’s point, there has been no shortage of criticism of Governor Brian Kemp’s decision in late April to allow businesses to reopen before Georgia has shown a clear downward trend of new COVID-19 cases.

Earlier this month—almost two weeks after announcing his plan to ease statewide restrictions that shut down nonessential businesses for weeks—Kemp said Georgia is waging “two wars”: one a fight for Georgians’ health, the other for the health of its economy. Reopening aside, there are two primary weapons in the latter fight: unemployment benefits for out-of-work individuals and Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses. Some critics say Kemp’s decision to reopen quickly has blunted both weapons.

In Georgia, the surge of unemployment claims was particularly severe. Nearly a third of the state’s workforce filed for unemployment between mid-March and early May, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s a much higher rate than the national average of 21 percent. “Probably the best explanation is just because we’re processing claims faster than other states,” Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told Atlanta magazine in a recent interview.

With businesses allowed to reopen statewide, many Georgia workers were asked to return to work—and could be at risk of losing those benefits if they feel unsafe and prefer to stay home. Rachel Berlin Benjamin, an employment attorney with Buckley Beal, says her law firm has been “very busy” helping people navigate dilemmas like this amid the pandemic.

In Georgia, eligible unemployed workers can receive up to $365 per week from the state. Additionally, anyone eligible for state benefits also gets $600 weekly through the end of July from the federal government, thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in response to the outbreak.

Employees of workplaces that are reopening, Berlin Benjamin says, are able to refuse to return and continue to claim unemployment benefits if they—or anyone they might live with or care for—have contracted, are experiencing symptoms of, or might have been exposed to COVID-19, or if they’re immunocompromised or have a pre-existing condition such as asthma that puts them at higher risk of becoming severely ill from the virus. Employees who have to take care of children as the result of daycare or school closures would also still be eligible, she adds.

Additionally, employees could be eligible to collect benefits if their place of business is creating an unsafe work environment by shirking the safety recommendations from public health officials. “If you’re fearing for your life or the life of someone who resides with you, it really depends on what goes on in your workplace,” she says. But if a worker is simply fearful of getting sick by, say, waiting on a customer who might be carrying the disease, they’re likely out of luck.

In some cases, those who do go back to work can still claim unemployment benefits, assuming they can show their hours have been cut or their income is diminished. Some employers, Berlin Benjamin says, have been intentionally scheduling workers for fewer hours so they can still collect unemployment: “If you’ve been laid off, you can still earn $300 per week in a part-time job and receive full unemployment benefits.”

Alec Owen, a server at an Italian restaurant in Old Fourth Ward, told Atlanta he headed back to work this week, after weeks of receiving unemployment checks. The restaurant, which he asked not to name in the story so not to single out his employer, emailed its staff to notify them that management “is no longer filing unemployment insurance claims on behalf of us,” he says. “So, if someone does decline [to come back], they will have to refile for unemployment and see if they still qualify, which will be unlikely to happen for most people.”

Deciding whether to clock back in wasn’t easy, Owen says; he’s concerned about catching the virus. “But I do look forward to getting back to work and trying to safely return to some sort of normalcy.”

It’s not just workers who feel conflicted about returning to their jobs. Some business owners feel that they’re being forced to bring people back to work prematurely. That’s because the federal Paycheck Protection Program requires that, for the loans it hands out to be forgiven, a business must retain or hire back the vast majority of its workers—a particular challenge for shops, bars, and restaurants. “[The PPP] really wasn’t very well written for restaurants, because in order to get [forgiveness] you have to spend 75 percent of [the loan] on your payroll,” says Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “In the restaurant industry, typically you spend about 30 percent on payroll, so the numbers don’t really make sense. It’s really one of the strangest processes I’ve ever seen.”

Some restaurants, Bremer says, have decided to return the money to avoid the red tape and bureaucratic confusion. When the PPP was launched, for instance, businesses that don’t qualify for loan forgiveness were supposed to be able to pay back the loans over a decade. Recently, though, that timeline has been reduced to just two years, according to Bremer.

Plenty of businesses have been soldiered on without PPP assistance. Little’s Food Store in Cabbagetown, for instance, quickly enacted safety precautions—employees wear masks and enforce social distancing measures—and kept slinging burgers and hotdogs. Owner Brad Cunard says he “didn’t feel comfortable” taking the loan, “even though it would have helped with uncertainty.”

“If it had been a simpler process,” he says, “we would have gone for it.”