Across the battered landscape of Georgia’s job market right now, as with most states during the COVID-19 pandemic, the statistics are daunting if not terrifying. But there are signs of improvement.
The state’s Department of Labor tallied initial unemployment claims for June alone at 607,851—a staggering 3,200 percent increase over the same month in 2019. The better news? June’s tally this year had dropped by more than 27 percent compared to May’s.
Mark Butler, Georgia’s Department of Labor Commissioner, says the dip in unemployment filings has dramatically accelerated since then. The first week in July, for instance, saw about 140,000 claims come in overall; by early August, that number had been halved. It’s not yet clear exactly why this is happening, but Butler points to steadily dropping unemployment rates in Georgia (7.6 percent, versus 11 percent across the U.S.) and the expiration of federal CARES Act weekly payments of $600 late last month, which Butler says “kind of took some of the steam out” of unemployment insurance filings. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has authorized more federal weekly unemployment benefits of $400, by way of an executive order issued Saturday, after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a second stimulus package last week. But payouts, as CBS News reports, could take weeks to reach the bank accounts of those who would qualify among more than 16 million unemployed Americans. Another sticking point is that Trump’s plan calls for states to pony up $100 of the additional weekly help per unemployed worker—funding that some governors have said is not available.
Despite promising statistical trends and the more than $11 billion the Department of Labor says it has paid out to Georgians in state and federal unemployment benefits since March, some Atlantans are still mired in limbo. They’re awaiting regular state benefits (the maximum weekly payout is $365), or special funding such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for self-employed and gig workers. We recently solicited reader questions and posed them to Butler, nearly five months after the novel coronavirus pandemic began crippling Georgia’s economy.
The greatest concern and source of frustration, as evidenced by reader questions, was claimants’ inability to reach anyone at the Department of Labor by phone, email, text, or any other means. The agency has increased staff to about 1,300 employees who handle claims on a daily basis. But Butler asserts the workload in recent months would have warranted a staff of 6,000, which he says still wouldn’t alleviate filing hiccups and a gumming of the process cause by problematic or fraudulent claims.
We started by asking: What’s the latest on the state’s unemployment benefits backlog, and what’s being done to get through it?
I think the definition of backlog is maybe getting skewed in our situation. A lot of it has to do with a lot of misinformation, and some of it’s being put out there by elected officials about how unemployment works. Unemployment is not a guaranteed issue. Just because you apply for unemployment doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. You have to qualify for it, you have to have actually worked, to have some kind of income; even on the PUA, you have to show some kind of income.
What we view as backlog, there’s about 21,000 cases right now that are undergoing further review. It’s not that we haven’t processed them—we have. The issues with those claims has to do with determining if the person is who they say they are, issues with ID, or to fight fraud. Or it could be an issue where the employer is appealing the person getting unemployment. For example, we get a lot of complaints from employers who say people just walk off the job and then apply for unemployment. And they’re the ones who actually pay the unemployment taxes, and they have the right to appeal the decision of someone getting unemployment, in which case the payments would stop until there’s a hearing. A hearing is not something that takes five minutes. It’s like a court case. Both sides present their evidence, it’s looked at, case law is applied, and it’s complicated. So obviously those things can get dragged out for a long time. And there’s a whole bunch of levels of appeal.
Also, we’re getting a lot of invalid claims being filled, too, almost half of what we’re seeing come in. A few week ago, we had almost 40,000 claims filed over a weekend in early July; in that number, [many] people had self-reported that they hadn’t worked in over 18 months. The problem is, you still have to [process] every one of those, and chances are, all of them will be denied.
Whether you’re talking about the state or the federal system, you have to have been working at the time the pandemic hit, and/or you have a job acceptance in hand that you can prove. We’ve seen people that worked some in 2019 but had quit their job in, say, January and weren’t even looking, and we had to deny them because they weren’t actually working at the time the pandemic hit.
Now for reader questions: My [now part-time] employer did not file my unemployment, and told me I am still eligible, but [they said I] have to file my own claim now. Is this true? Or should my employer still file for me?
There’s no “have to” on that, no. That’s not true. I’ll give you an example . . . the latest week we’ve got [data for] right now, 65 percent of claims filed were employer-filed claims. So there has not been a stop to the ability of employers to be able to do that. We have not put a moratorium on that.
Matter of fact, I had a local restaurant here in Atlanta that’s very famous, which I won’t name, the owner texted me this morning: Even though the $600 [in federal benefits] is not there, he asked if he could he still do employer-filed claims because some of his folks are working reduced hours. I said, Yeah, just understand the formula: If they make more than $300 plus whatever the weekly benefit amount is from the state, then they won’t get anything. So if they were getting $200 in unemployment, if they made more than $500 a week, then they wouldn’t get anything. Anything under that, they’d get something.
I’m pretty sure I accidentally put “yes” to the question that asks if you have refused work and so because of that I think my claim is locked up in the system, so I’m pretty screwed at this point. [How do I deal] with this situation?
You can actually go back—and it might take a while—but a review official will have to take a statement and interview that person. Because you can’t just willy-nilly flip that back. We need to caution everybody when you’re filling out those forms, to be honest and accurate. We’re well aware that there’s all kinds of stuff on Facebook and everywhere else where people are telling folks how to answer the questions. But you have to be careful about that. You don’t want to answer something dishonestly and have it catch up with you.
How long do I have to wait to be able to start drawing unemployment [after receiving severance pay for a specific amount of weeks]? I am running low and starting to worry about feeding my family and paying rent. I’m looking for work.
Without putting an exact number on it, a review official has to take a look at the severance package that was offered and verify that. Typically, if they were paid for 18 weeks’ worth of pay, then it’s going to be 18 weeks before they can do unemployment. That’s federal law. You cannot receive unemployment during a period that’s covered by severance.
Severance has to be reported; if you don’t, it will catch up with you. Because your employer’s going to report those wages paid in that quarter, and when we do our spot-checks that we do several times a year, if it shows that you made wages from your employer the same time you were collecting unemployment, you’re going to be in an overpayment situation.
I realized I filed a month late for my unemployment benefits, and I am unable to claim the month prior to that date. What should I do? File an appeal or keep calling to get in touch with a representative?
Sounds like what the person did, when they filled out the form, they did not put in the correct date of separation. Yes, you can file an appeal on that, but they need to make sure they have their documentation.
On certain situations, that can be handled by a specialist, depending on the criteria of the situation. They’re still going to need to see something from the claimant that what they’re saying is correct. I strongly caution that you’re not claiming, or attempting to claim, any weeks in which you received any pay. People think, or there’s a rumor going around, that we won’t catch it. It might take a while, and you might not hear about it for months and months, but eventually it will catch up. We’re already having cases like this right now.
When is the GDOL going to release retroactive PUA money? [Related question:] I want to know why the GDOL is not paying approved PUA and FPUC benefits? They are months in the arrears, [and] people are getting desperate.
We are paying. That’s not true. It may be [an issue with] that person. I talked to someone the other day who applied for PUA, and they got their first check in 14 days. We’re not a month behind in getting out payments; we’re getting them out timely, unless there’s an issue with your claim. Your payments may get frozen for a while until it can be investigated, which means a person has to lay eyes on it and see. We’ve even had to stop some payments recently, because once we got to looking at the information people submitted, or did not submit, about the income they supposed made [for PUA applications], we see they have no proof of income, no 1099 [tax forms], no tax returns, nothing.
It may be how they filled out their form. And we’re seeing a lot of people that are trying to get PUA that—when we research them—they provided no income proof, no income has been reported to Georgia Department of Revenue. Obviously, if you can’t prove that you actually made an income and had a job then you’re not going to qualify.
How does partial unemployment work? My salary was reduced but my hours were kept the same. Do I qualify for partial unemployment?
The terminology of partial unemployment gets misconstrued. Partial unemployment—this person, in this situation, it sounds like they are, or could be. It doesn’t mean you’re getting a partial amount of money; it means you’re still connected to your employer.
In their case, they’re saying their pay has been reduced. It’s possible they could be eligible for unemployment. It’d be best if their employer filed for them. It goes back to that formula that we talked about: If they’re making more than $300 plus whatever they would qualify for with unemployment, then there’s no sense in filing, because you won’t get anything. If pay has been significantly cut, it’s possible they could get some help, but you won’t know until you apply and see what your weekly benefit is.
I’ve had plenty of employers that have reduced people’s hours that have filed partials. An individual unemployment filing is not considered a partial; the employer has to do that. If the employer sends it in, we’ll send out determinations. And when the employer files every week for their employees, they put in how much they paid them [gross wages], and if it exceeds that formula, they don’t get anything. If it’s under that, they get something. We do all the math for them—they just have to report the earnings.
I never got my [prepaid debit] card, [and] the phone number for the card company just hangs up on me when I try to call it. I don’t have a card number to give them because I never received my card, but the unemployment office tells me there’s nothing they can do about the missing card.
I don’t know the situation—if it’s an employer-filed claim, or individually filed claim. There’s a lot of different issues that can go wrong. If it’s [the former], you need to ensure the employer is actually filing. I had a case this morning where an individual said they didn’t get their unemployment last week, and I asked if they’d talked to their employer. We went and checked, and actually the employer didn’t; they’d filed for everybody but that person. They needed to call their employer and ask them to send that week back in. If the person is individual-filling, and they have claimed their weeks and told us they need to get paid, then that won’t happen.
The debit card company has supposedly increased their line capabilities. The same company that does it for us does it for six other states. So I’m sure they’re inundated with phone calls from customers from six other states.
How do I get my back payments [going back to my approved eligibility date for unemployment assistance]? Do I certify for myself the weeks [between then and now], or is it automatically retroactive?
Yes, you have to certify. You’re certifying that you were unemployed those weeks. It’s like taking an oath: If you do not tell us you were unemployed those weeks, you will not receive payment.
That’s actually a common question. People apply for unemployment and think the money just starts showing up at your door, and you tell us when to stop. That’s just not how it works. When you certify every week, you’re certifying you did not work the previous week. We’ve had some people try to certify future weeks. How do you know you’re not going to be employed three weeks from now?
Three related questions, among many on this topic:
Why hasn’t my husband heard anything since he received an email that his account was processed? He filed back in April and has claimed eight weeks now but nothing else has been done . . . we have called, texted, emailed for a couple of months now. What can we do to get an answer before we lose everything?
I want to know why it’s impossible to reach unemployment once you apply. I have three different phone numbers for [DOL]. Can’t reach a live person to save my life. I try emailing from the DOL website. No one responds. I emailed [Governor Brian] Kemp’s office to get a call back saying the DOL would contact me. That was a month ago.
So, basically there is no way to resolve your issue and get your claim paid. They are clearly short-staffed . . . is there a troubleshooting group we can contact? It has been nine weeks for my claim, and it has not been processed due to a glitch.
It’s sheer volume. Because what we do is so complicated, you can’t hire your way out of this. We’ve heard lots of suggestions from certain people: “You should just create a call center.” [But a] call center can’t answer or solve the problems. They’re just going to put you on a list that we currently have.
From our legislators who are helping us identify troubled individuals, we have about 6,000 [claimants] on that list. We have associations that are helping us. The people that can solve the problems, that’s what they’re doing every single day. We’re continuing to add new tools on a weekly basis. We’ve got some new ones coming in another week or two that are going to add a lot more abilities [so that] people won’t have to email us. They’ll be able to go into their accounts and upload documents and things like that. There’s also going to be some ways to help identify people—if there’s [a delay caused by ID issues]—we’re adding some really neat technologies to be able to do that without having to actually call anybody.