State bracing for projected jobless surge due to COVID-19 closings

Georgia Department of Labor career centers were among the latest places to lock down this month as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but jobless people can still apply for benefits online or by phone. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Mother of two Kaylin Hart of Savannah is one of a growing number of Georgians suddenly thrown out of work in the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis rapidly spreading through the state, and she’s frustrated by her attempts to apply for jobless benefits online.

“At first, we did the 50/50, seat every other table kind of deal, then they went down to three waitresses, and I hadn’t been there long enough. They kept the people that had been there for many years, and then they finally shut down a couple days ago,” said the former waitress at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in Pooler. “They’re just doing to-go orders.”

Hart is part of a worrisome national trend as jobs are evaporating at a head-spinning pace this month. In a National NPR/PBS Marist poll conducted last week, 18% of people said they had been laid off or had their hours cut back at work because of coronavirus.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits is soaring, according to Kersha Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Labor.

“We are receiving the same number of claims in one day that we were seeing in a week last year,” she said. “We are working diligently to process these as quickly as possible and answer as many questions as we can. We are asking claimants to file during off-peak hours. Claims can be filed online at any time.”

The New York Times reports the U.S. Labor Department instructed state officials in an email to provide nothing more specific than “information using generalities to describe claims levels (very high, large increase)” until the number of national unemployment claims is released this Thursday.

With some experts predicting a worst-case nationwide unemployment rate higher than 30%, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to clash over provisions in a $2 trillion recovery bill.

The state labor department’s career centers where the unemployed can find job-hunting resources were among the latest places to lock down this month as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but people can still apply for benefits online or by phone.

To file a claim online, visit www.dol.georgia.gov on a computer or smartphone and click “Apply for Unemployment Benefits.” You’ll need to supply your Social Security number, potentially your driver’s license, your banking information and your work history for the last 18 months.

Hart said the unemployment website appears to be straining to keep up with visitors.

“I’ve tried (applying for unemployment), but all the offices are closed, so you have to go online, and I’ve tried multiple times doing it online, but it’s like, the website won’t even pop up. It’s like there’s too many people on there trying to file, so it’s working really slow. I can’t even get on it,” she said.

Restaurant industry slammed

Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled a series of responses late Monday afternoon, including an order to close all bars, nightclubs and other gatherings of ten or more people where it is not possible for people to stand six feet apart from each other at all times.

Many Georgians appear to be staying away from restaurants even before the announcement, according to industry site OpenTable.com, which reports restaurant bookings were down 99% in Georgia Saturday over the third Saturday in March, 2019.

Some restaurants are switching the focus to takeout or asking frequent diners to buy gift cards during the pandemic to help keep the lights on. Others are turning to online fundraising, with sites like GoFundMe filling up with restaurateurs asking for help keeping staff paid.

Hart said her managers have been helpful during the crisis, keeping staff informed via group messaging and helping with food and supplies for employees in need. She said Darden Restaurants, the company that owns Cheddar’s, is offering an emergency pay program and that she’s been told her job will be waiting for her when she gets back.

“They’re supposed to be holding all the positions until this whole thing clears up, but by then I’m sure I’ll have another job. I can’t just sit here waiting around,” she said.

Hart said the only openings she has seen are for grocery stores and convenience stores, and she doesn’t like the idea of being in contact with so many people during this pandemic.

She said the family’s getting by on her boyfriend’s salary, but it’s not easy.

“He usually pays the rent, the electricity, he pays the bills of the house, and then I buy everything else that we need, the food in the house, the car insurance, I pretty much pay everything else,” she said. “So without mine, we don’t have all that much money to buy groceries and stuff. He’s limited after bills are paid.”

Travel and hospitality hit

Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian announced major cuts last week in a letter to employees, including a call for a 70% reduction in flights, temporary pay cuts of up to 50%, cutting the active fleet in half and encouraging employees to take voluntary leave.

Delta employs more than 90,000 worldwide and more than 36,000 in Georgia. “I know everyone is concerned about the security of your jobs and pay,” Bastian wrote. “Given the uncertainty about the duration of this crisis, we are not yet at a point to make any decisions.”

Fewer people traveling means fewer conventioneers and tourists staying at Georgia hotels, an employer of more than 104,000 Georgians who are facing potential job loss, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

The economic adversity on the horizon for hotels is more daunting than anything association president and CEO Chip Rogers can recall.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including Sept. 11 and the great recession of 2008 combined,” Rogers said at a hospitality industry meeting at the White House last week. “The White House and Congress can take urgent action to protect countless jobs, provide relief to our dedicated and hardworking employees, and ensure that our small business operators and franchise owners – who represent more than half of hotels in the country – can keep their doors open.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.