Jobless ranks grow as unemployment payments lag for many Georgians

When Georgia's unemployment rate spiked in the past, the state Department of Labor offered in-person support at career centers like this one in Norcross. Workers lost jobs in April at a record rate and displaced workers are left to navigate online support since the state shut the centers during the COVID-19 outbreak. Eric S. Lesser/Getty Images

Nearly 265,000 Georgians filed initial unemployment claims during the last full week in April, joining more than 1 million other workers who lost jobs since mid-March, about the time sports teams suspended seasons and the state’s economy started shutting down so people could avoid interactions that might spread the novel coronavirus.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, 444,195 Georgians have received their first payment, representing 62% of filers. That means for thousands of Georgians, payments are not arriving quickly, and May’s bills will soon be due.

Jennifer Skidmore of Clarke County works the front desk at a pediatrician’s office. Her hours were cut in half at the end of March as medical practices across the state were forced to make deep cuts to stay afloat.

Skidmore applied for benefits April 3. It was the first time she’s filed for unemployment.

“I was on the fence because we were told we could use our leave, but I was hesitant about blowing through all my leave and then not having any left for when we came back full-time,” she said. “I had heard I could apply for partial so I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.”

Since then, she hasn’t received any payments, but she said she was feeling more hopeful Thursday after she heard back that her payments would be posted in three to four business days.

Skidmore, a mother of two children under the age of five, said her family gets by on her husband’s paycheck, and the federal stimulus check they received has also helped. But she’s learned that navigating the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system requires a great deal of patience.

The department paid out $388 million in the last six weeks, more than it paid in the last four years combined.

The number of Georgians requesting payments beyond their initial claim also remains high. The state labor department processed over 750,000 continued claims for the week ending April 18, the most recent week for which data is available.

That suggests layoffs are no longer contained in sectors like travel, tourism, retail and hospitality, said Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center Director Rajeev Dhawan.

“Once (the initial claims are) processed, this number’s going to come up to 900-something, which at that point, would be about 20%-plus of the employment base of the economy,” he said. “Retail and hospitality only make up to like 15% of the economy. This tells you that there are second round effects going on.”

These include medical workers like Skidmore who have had their hours reduced or been furloughed as well as other professionals that do not deal directly with the public, he said.

“We have the Delta (Air Lines), we have the manufacturing, we have the other stuff where people have been furloughed, so the damage is beyond what we’ve seen in hospitality,” Dhawan said.

The newly unemployed can no longer apply for benefits in person, following the closure of the department’s career centers in March to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler delivers remarks to members of the media over the web Thursday. Butler’s department has issued more payments during the last six weeks than in the past four years combined.

In a video press conference Thursday, Butler suggested support from his department might remain online and by phone for a while longer, even as Gov. Brian Kemp prepared to let the state’s month-old shelter-in-place order expire at midnight.

Butler said one employee at the department’s central office had tested positive for the novel coronavirus and an unspecified number of others are working from home.

Butler said the employee was quarantined for a week before testing positive after coming in contact with someone who carried the virus.

“As a precaution, we went ahead and sent home laptops, and a lot of those individuals went home from a particular part of our building as a precaution, and we are lining up testing for a lot of those individuals so we can get hem back to work as quickly as possible.”

No decisions are made yet about when to open career centers for in-person visits, as the priority is to keep workers healthy.

“Every single person we have right now currently working for us is essential, and so we have to make sure we keep as many people working right now in (the) seven days a week that we’re doing to help process these claims and help customers,” he said.

Georgia workers who are afraid to go back on the job for fear of getting sick should talk to their bosses, Butler said. But if that doesn’t work out and you don’t meet labor department criteria, you could lose unemployment benefits if your employer is open and wants you to return to work.

“Employers need to be working with their employees, employees need to be working with their employers,” he said. “If you have some health issues, for instance, I talked to somebody yesterday who owns several locations of a particular business, and he’s calling each and every one of his employees as he’s reopening, and saying ‘Let’s talk about your situation and whatnot.’ If they live with, say, their grandmother, who’s on up in age, he’s letting them come in at a later date.”

Workers can stay on benefits if they meet the department’s criteria, he added.

“There is a way you can get unemployment based on COVID,” he said. “If you have an immune-compromised situation and your doctor has advised you to stay at home and not go out there, and to self-quarantine, that is a situation, obviously that you will be allowed benefits.” 

Butler said people over 60 can stay home from work and keep receiving benefits, as can people living with somebody in that age range or an immunocompromised person. Parents of children who do not have access to child care because of the pandemic also qualify.

The state’s unemployment trust fund that pays unemployment benefits has a balance of just under $2.1 billion, down $455 million from the month before. That’s enough to last five or six months at the current payment rate, Butler said, adding that payments will not stop if the state depletes that account.

“Just go back to the (2007-2009) recession and you’ll remember the state actually did spend all the money in the trust fund, and it basically went broke,” he said. “This system has been around for a very long time, it’s very easy for us, with just a signature from the governor to the federal treasury to borrow money to keep making payments.”

Next week’s jobless numbers could show an easing of the painful job losses in Georgia based on some promising signs, Butler said.

“We are starting to see some things internally, at least as of yesterday, that there’s a possibility we may see a downward trend when next week’s numbers are posted, but then again, who knows?” he said.

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.