Since mid-March, record numbers of Georgians have filed unemployment claims, and trying to vet that paperwork while fielding questions, concerns, and complaints has been “like being inside a tornado inside a hurricane inside a tidal wave,” as Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler candidly puts it.
Consider: Prior to March, the state office was averaging about 20,000 unemployment claims per month. A torrent of roughly 10 times that many claims per week has ensued since the novel coronavirus began impacting daily lives in Georgia, with about 1.7 million claims tallied overall. Compounding matters, the state’s previously thriving economy had shrunk Butler’s office to its lowest staffing levels in history at the outset of COVID-19; the roughly 1,000 employees were less than half the department’s headcount during the Great Recession, as unemployment claims had dropped to 1974 levels, requiring less staff. The department has managed to bring on a couple of hundred new hires or recent retirees, but “you can’t replace 1,000 people in five or six weeks—it’s a practical impossibility,” Butler says.
The good news? Data show the onslaught of new claims in Georgia appears to be plateauing, if not dipping on certain days, as more people return to work, Butler says.
Still, for thousands of Georgians applying for regular state unemployment benefits (the maximum weekly payout is $365), the federal CARES Act weekly payments of $600, or special funding such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for self-employed and gig workers, the process is hardly cut-and-dried. We asked readers earlier this month to submit questions pertaining to the process, and Butler answers a range of them below.
First, we asked Butler about recent media reports showing that only two states (Hawaii and Kentucky) have a higher percentage of workers who’ve filed jobless claims in the U.S.
Why do Georgia’s claims appear so high, about one-third of workers overall?
Probably the best explanation is just because we’re processing claims faster than other states. For example, we’ve got Florida to the south of us. I think last week, out of all the claims they’d received, they’d only processed 12 percent. That means they’ve gotten [the claim] in their system and it’s starting to move. By this time last week, we were at 80 percent of the claims that we’d gotten in, processed, and started paying out. Obviously, a lot of people still haven’t been paid.
Before this happened, an individual claim would normally take about 21 days. In most cases, if it’s been a very long time, there’s something wrong with the claim somewhere. It may be a case where somebody gets impatient, because they haven’t received money after the first week, and so they file another claim—and that actually makes our computer system see that as fraud, and it stops the whole claim. We’re also trying to create computer programs to overcome other people’s mistakes and have it fix them for them, without them having to get in touch with us. Even then there still are going to be a lot of cases we have to talk to the individual, and it’s just a matter of having enough time and people to be able to do that. When you’re talking about 1.7 million or so claims being filed, then you can’t have enough [Department of Labor] workers—not trained ones, anyway.
Now for our reader questions: Can you receive unemployment while also receiving severance pay from your former employer?
No. You can’t get them both at the same time. Once you set up a claim, there will be a hearing that’ll be set up to look at whatever your severance offer was. And they will take that amount and spread that over a number of weeks based on your previous income, and once that’s over, then you’ll start getting your unemployment.
I am forced to not work because public transportation has cut both of my bus routes due to COVID-19. Can I apply for unemployment?
Yes. When they apply, we added a feature for the reasons of unemployment, and one of them is for conditions of COVID-19, and that’s what they would need to select. Don’t select “lack of work.”
If and when my employer decides that it’s okay for me to resume work because the government decides so—but I’m not comfortable doing so—could I still collect unemployment?
That’s a tricky question. First of all, if your employer is filing for you, and they’ve asked you to come back, and your only reason is because you’re afraid . . . your employer can stop filling for you, in which case you’d have to file your own claim. At that point, you’d have to prove you fall under one of the [allowed] reasons.
Quickly, those reasons are this: You have some type of medical condition that makes you vulnerable, like a compromised immune system, and you’ll have to be able to document it in some way, like a letter from your physician. Or you’re over 60 years old. Or you’re somebody who lives with one of the first two. The last reason is if you have school-age children, and because childcare is not available due to facilities not being open, and you have nobody [who can watch] your children because of COVID-19. There’s a caveat to that, in that if you’ve a two-parent household, both of you can’t claim the childcare reason. I guess you’ll have to flip a coin.
My 3-year-old daughter’s daycare closed, and I haven’t been able to work because I’m a single father with nowhere else to take her. My employer has stayed open, as they are considered essential. Am I eligible to file for the time I have missed and/or will miss until her daycare reopens?
Yes. Again, they need to select for a condition of COVID-19.
If I have filed for unemployment, how do I now file for the federal pandemic employment assistance?
I think this person is trying to ask about how they qualify for the PUA. This is something that gets people messed up—I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over Twitter. How Congress set up the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is that you have to be a person who doesn’t qualify for state unemployment. It’s not just for self-employees.
For example, my daughter, who lives in New York . . . she’d just moved there last spring and didn’t find a regular W-2 job until late in the third quarter. So, when she applied for unemployment, she didn’t have enough wages on file—enough work history—to qualify for unemployment in New York. In her case, she gets to apply for PUA under those provisions.
You first have to be deemed that you’re ineligible for regular unemployment. And then, you’ll be sent a link, either through email, or that will show up on you own account [under the “My UI” section on the Georgia Department of Labor website]. At that point, you go in, and apply for the federal unemployment. Put your information in, and follow the instructions.
You either get regular state unemployment, or the federal PUA. You can’t do both, not legally.
Is the PUA actually real? Just got a letter saying I’ll get $0. I’m self-employed and work gig jobs like Shipt and GrubHub. How do we get help so we can be included?
If they got $0, they need to be looking through their email to see if they got an email from us that has the [PUA] link so that they can apply for it. It’s there. Sometimes, because it’s a mass email, it ends up in your spam folder. It’s definitely real; in just the last two weeks, we’ve paid out—on just the PUA, not including the extra $600 [Cares Act] funding—about $63 million to self-employees.
I’m a Realtor. Do I qualify for the pandemic unemployment?
Yes. As long as they’re not working and not making money. They have to be careful. The PUA [application] has a lot of self-attesting in it.
I am a self-employed attorney whose business has suffered tremendously. Am I entitled to unemployment?
As long as they’re not making any money, yeah. Even if you are making some money, there’s a way you can collect unemployment benefits, but you have to be honest about it. Once you apply, and we establish a weekly benefit amount for you, you cannot make more than $300, which is the income exception, plus your weekly benefit amount—you cannot exceed the sum of those two. If you stay under that by at least $1, then you would still qualify for the federal $600. But you have to get approved for regular benefits to qualify for the $600 addition.
Please explain in clear language: How much can employees still earn from their job each week and still be eligible to receive UI?
I would write the formula out. Which is: $300 + your weekly benefit amount [not including the extra $600 from the federal government]. Add those two together, and it equals X. Take X – $1, and that’s your answer.
Basically, you can’t exceed your weekly benefit amount plus $300.
Can immigrants who are legally permitted to work and have lost their jobs apply too, or is this strictly for citizens?
If you’re here, and you’re legally allowed to work, and you have a Social Security Number, and your wages have been reported on you, then yes. That’s the black-letter law. Federal law, actually. If you’re not legally allowed to work here, and there’s no Social Security Number on you, the answer’s going to be no.
I am working, but I draw a retirement check. If I’m not working because of coronavirus, does my retirement check keep me from getting unemployment?
It depends on when they retired. And it really needs to be over a year and a half ago, at a minimum. It gets complicated.
Once my UI claim has been accepted by DOL and weekly benefit claims are submitted and accepted, how long should I expect to wait for payment to be sent via direct deposit?
If you’ve been approved to payout, it just takes about 48 hours. Sometimes people’s banks don’t accept these payments as quickly as others do.
If I was denied unemployment and I think that’s wrong, how do I reapply?
You don’t reapply. You can appeal it. You should receive a letter, and you can appeal.
I’m approved and have been for over a month. Where are the funds?
I guess that’s a case-by-case basis. When they say they’re approved, is that an accepted application? If you get a statement saying you’ve been approved for a payment, and you’re sitting at a month, that’s probably about right, right now, considering the volume we’re dealing with.
If they has a notification on their “My UI” [page] saying we have paid them, but they don’t have money in their account, they need to go online and check what they’ve put in for their direct deposit information, because we have had, in total, about 45,000 people put in the wrong bank account information. It’s a nightmare scenario for us, too. I dealt with five or six of those cases this morning. Sometimes we get that money back. Sometimes the people have spent it.