Glitches applying for jobless benefits add to frustrations for unemployed

Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday issued new guidelines for restaurants that plan to reopen Monday, the first day after he eased an order that prohibited dining room service. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Some Georgians are reporting difficulties navigating the state’s now online-only unemployment system as a sudden and unprecedented wave of joblessness washes over the state.

During the last full week in March, the Georgia Department of Labor processed more than 133,000 unemployment claims, an increase of more than 1,100% and the highest number ever in one week in the state.

Nationwide, more than 6.6 million people filed new unemployment claims, the second record-setting week in a row, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Before last week, the worst seven-day stretch was during the 1982 recession.

“We are seeing the number of claims filed in Georgia skyrocket to levels we have never experienced before,” said Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. “Our team is working overtime, nights and weekends to process the tremendous volume – taking time away from their own families to help Georgia’s families.” 

Displaced workers who need to file should try to do it online to avoid long waits on the phone, Butler said. In-person visits are now canceled to reduce the spread of the virus. Instructions are available at www.dol.georgia.gov

But some filers say they have had trouble logging on to the system or even confirming their filing had been received. The department’s Facebook page is swamped with complaints and questions from Georgians.

Atlanta massage therapist K. Miles, who asked that her first name not be used, said she lost her job the second week of March and has been unable to make progress.

“They have suspended in-person visits because of COVID, and now their excuse to why messages aren’t being answered and the website’s not functioning properly is a computer glitch issue that they are ‘working’ on. … It’s unfortunate families are suffering because the GDOL was not fully prepared to process these claims in a timely manner. Every day that goes by the hostility of the public will increase, especially since nobody has received their stimulus check either.”

Most of the laid off workers during the public health coronavirus crisis were in the service industry, but the pain could be spreading to other parts of the economy.

Federal law requires employers to give the state advance notice of closings and mass layoffs. Like last week, the latest labor department filings show these are grim times for travel and hospitality workers.

Airline catering company Gate Gourmet could lay off 500 workers. Golden Gate America East, which manages parking, cleaning and maintenance for rental vehicles in College Park near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, could hand pink slips to another 378. Up to 138 DeKalb County Marriott Hotels and Resorts employees are facing potential job losses.

Atlanta-based Focus Brands, developer of restaurants including Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon, reports it might let go 136 workers in Atlanta. Barbecue restaurant Jim n Nick’s could lay off 79 between its Smyrna and Hiram locations.

Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center Director Rajeev Dhawan said layoffs in these fields continue as many Georgiansare staying home, which federal, state and local officials are telling them to do.

“You’re laying them off because you don’t have much demand for your products because of the sheltering in place, so that is one thing,” he said. “Now, the unemployment insurance claims are being filed by people who are being laid off in the hospitality area, mostly, at this point, your restaurants or hotels, or airlines, they are filing the unemployment insurance claims.”

But Dhawan said before long, he expects to see layoffs of a broad variety of workers.

“In the next round, as the economic activity goes down, people will make the decision, ‘do I need to carry that many employees in my small business?’ Which may be in the wholesale arena, it may be in the transportation industry, it could be anywhere.”

The state labor department issued over $14.5 million in unemployment benefits to over 64,000 Georgians last week. Last week, the president signed a $2 trillion stimulus package to expand unemployment insurance and send direct checks to many Americans.

Commissioner Butler said the state labor department has signed all of the necessary agreements to access funding under the stimulus and is awaiting guidelines from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to administer the funds.

Dhawan said how much help those checks will provide depends a lot on how soon they arrive in Americans’ bank accounts.

“It’s going to take time,” he said. “It’s not an instant credit.”

Miles said she is running low on supplies and not sure she will be able to remain in her home until help arrives.

“I’m trying to keep from losing my patience with this process,” she said. “I can only take it day by day. Anything can happen, but for today, I guess I will go beg for food at a friend’s house.”