Georgia jobless claims drop as state benefits propped up by federal loan

Fewer Georgians are seeking unemployment benefits than they were in the spring, but the fund that the state draws from to pay benefits is shrinking fast, despite a promise of a federal lifeline. Photo credit: Bytemarks via Flickr

The pot of money set aside for Georgians’ unemployment insurance continues to approach empty despite a promise of a federal lifeline, even as fewer displaced workers in the state are applying for benefits.

More than 62,000 Georgia workers filed their first unemployment claim last week, 11,000 fewer than the week before, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Thursday. Initial claims have declined each week since the week ending July 18, when more than 120,000 Georgians applied.

But unemployment remains significantly higher than before the pandemic recession hammered the state’s economy this spring. Georgia’s unemployment rate in June was 7.6%, more than twice January’s rate of 3.1%, but still lower than April’s peak of 12.6%.

The federal government just approved an $85 million loan to the fund Georgia uses to pay unemployment benefits for August, the first of three monthly installments totaling $1.1 billion, as the state’s unemployment trust fund balance fell to $385 million Thursday. That’s down from over $2 billion in March.

Another 18 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have had similar loans approved for August, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The funds are authorized, but the state will not access them until they are needed, said Georgia Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright.

A July 24 letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia signed by Gov. Brian Kemp asked the federal government to transfer $85 million in August, $585 million in September and $430 in October as the state continues to pay benefits to the historically high number of people pushed out of work during the pandemic. The job losses followed the governor’s orders for people to stay home during Georgia’s initial attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

President Donald Trump over the weekend signed an executive order providing an additional $400 in weekly unemployment benefits to supplement the $275 paid by the state, with a quarter of the money expected to come from states. The plan has not been implemented, and the state labor department and governor’s office are reviewing it, said Georgia Labor Secretary Mark Butler. No timeline for a decision has been announced.

“The President’s executive order gives states various options for implementing the White House plan. The GDOL is working with the Governor’s office to provide financial resources to continue to bridge the gap for Georgia’s unemployed workforce,” Butler said. “GDOL will deliver a system to process these weekly supplements as quickly as possible.”

Information on that system will be posted on the department’s website and social media as soon as it is available, Butler said.

More than 3.4 million Georgians have filed initial unemployment claims between the initial wave of layoffs following the first COVID shutdowns in mid-March and Aug. 8, more than the number of claims filed last eight years combined.

An individual’s claim takes an average of four to five weeks to process, and an unemployment claim filed by an employer can be completed in as little as a week if it contains no problems, according to the state labor department. But minor errors have led to long delays for some Georgians.

Carl Simpson of Mableton was furloughed from his construction job at the end of April. He was a superintendent for a company that worked on upgrades to high-end houses, but as COVID-19 spread, clients became wary of inviting strangers into their homes and started putting off non-essential home renovations.

His boss filed his unemployment claim for him, but it took more than three months of calls and emails before Simpson got a response. He found out last week his employer copied a digit in his Social Security number incorrectly.

Simpson is hopeful that means he will start to receive his benefits, but he said it has not been easy getting by without a job.

“I haven’t paid rent since April, my landlord is all over me,” he said. “I’m behind on my car note, they want to cut my lights and gas off. I’ve been borrowing money to keep utilities on, like water and light, gas, not to mention feeding me and my dog.”

Simpson said he has been particularly galled to receive misleading emails offering cash payments from addresses including phrases like “unemployment benefits.” He said he clicked on the first one he received but became suspicious when he was prompted to provide personal information, so he went back and double-checked the email.

“It makes me want to punch someone in the head,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. The way I caught on was every time I’ve emailed the Department of Labor, it always had a .gov at the end, but this came through with a .com.”

Scammers during the pandemic have targeted Georgians with bogus offers of unemployment benefits, phony work-from-home job offers and even fake contact tracing attempts, according to Attorney General Chris Carr’s office. Recipients can report scam attempts to the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division by visiting consumer.ga.gov or calling 404-651-8600.

Carl Simpson says this email is one of about 10 he received in one day offering misleading promises of unemployment benefits. Photo courtesy of Carl Simpson