Lawmakers target labor chief for oversight after jobless benefit snafus

Georgia state lawmakers are poised to send Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler some help he doesn't want. The high-ranking position is intended to “improve the reliability and timeliness of service to the citizens of Georgia regarding the proper payment of unemployment insurance benefits.” Courtesy of Georgia Department of Labor

Frustrated by a groundswell of complaints back home, state lawmakers from both parties have lined up behind an effort to place a new governor-appointed staffer in the state Department of Labor who would share authority with the state’s elected GOP labor commissioner.

The agency was overwhelmed early in the pandemic when a historic number of people suddenly out of work filed for unemployment. Legislators have continued to say they are hearing from constituents who are still struggling to access unemployment benefits.

“I just know that people are not being helped,” said Sen. Gail Davenport, a Jonesboro Democrat who is one of the nearly 40 senators to sign onto the bill. “Working people who have worked and they deserve assistance are not getting it right now.”

Lawmakers approved a mid-year budget Thursday that now includes $100,000 to fund the new position, sending the spending plan to the governor. Rep. Terry England, an Auburn Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, described the position Thursday as a “legislative liaison type position.” Butler is a constitutional officer elected statewide, which typically carries significant autonomy between elections.

A bill outlining the position’s duties was filed Thursday by Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican who chairs the Senate Government Oversight Committee. Harbin’s committee would have to confirm the governor’s appointee. 

The person would be responsible for developing a strategy to “improve the reliability and timeliness of service to the citizens of Georgia regarding the proper payment of unemployment insurance benefits.”

“There are thousands of citizens waiting on unemployment decisions and we want to make sure the state employees filling those claims have the management and support they need,” Harbin said in a statement Thursday.  

Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler has defended his agency’s performance during a pandemic that has overwhelmed his staff with jobless claims and frustrated displaced workers waiting on benefits. Here he is seen talking to state lawmakers this month.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, who has served in that role for a decade, puzzled lawmakers when he said he did not need additional state aid in this year’s budget even as their constituents complained of long waits for payments and trouble reaching anyone at the agency.

And Butler attracted more legislative scrutiny after the state auditor said the commissioner had not provided requested unemployment documents in the time requested, threatening the state’s prized AAA bond rating.

The bill creating the new position specifically tasks the chief labor officer with providing “timely” reports on unemployment compensation benefits and responses to any financial audits of the Department of Labor.

Butler, though, accused state auditors of pushing a “smear campaign” and asking for large amounts of information at the last minute. He said this week that he has provided the requested information.

“All the experts on Georgia unemployment are already working here,” Butler said in an interview Tuesday. “So, hiring somebody off the street is not going to be any help. To me, it’s not a very helpful or fruitful proposal.”

The backlog at this point is in appeals, Butler said. He said he talked to someone recently who received their payment in about three weeks. 

“A lot of those claims that are having issues are not us. It’s that we have a lot of people filing for unemployment that are not eligible, and they keep appealing or calling their elected official wanting them to fix it and make them be eligible,” said Butler, who is up for reelection next year and who is a former legislator. “And that’s not really how it works.”

Some lawmakers say they aren’t buying that, though.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Davenport said Wednesday, citing unanswered constituent inquiries and thousands of unresolved claims. “If there’s no communication there, what are the people to think?

“My constituents have called me and said they cannot get any response from the Department of Labor,” she said. “You have people on the telephone crying saying they need to pay their rent, they need to pay their mortgage or they need to buy food – this is the first time they’ve had to go and stand in the line for a food pantry and get food. If they have a check coming, they said they need to get it.”

‘It’s like they don’t care’

The number of Georgians seeking unemployment benefits for the first time fell slightly last week to a little more than 26,000, down from about 27,000 the week before, according to U.S. Department of Labor data released Thursday.

The drop continues a downward trend that began in early January after post-holiday layoffs caused a 2021 high of nearly 37,000 jobless claims the week ending Jan. 9. More than 150,000 Georgians were receiving benefits at the end of January.

Before the pandemic this time last year, the Georgia Department of Labor was processing closer to 5,000 new unemployment claims each week. But the coronavirus’ arrival brought an unprecedented spike in claims. More than 624,000 people reported losing their jobs in April, shattering records and putting major stress on the state’s unemployment system.

Since then, the Georgia Department of Labor has paid over $18 billion in state and federal benefits and processed nearly 4.4 million unemployment insurance claims, more than in the nine years before the pandemic combined.

The state reported clearing its claims backlog in November, but difficulties continue for those out of work in a tough job market.

Jason Kilgore of Danville applied for unemployment benefits last February after he was let go from his job as a supervisor at the YKK AP America Inc. manufacturing facility in Dublin. He has struggled to find work with the pandemic ongoing.

He exhausted his regular unemployment and then his Georgia State Extended Benefits program ran out Dec. 5. He ran into trouble when he applied for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. After several phone calls and emails to the Department of Labor and Butler’s office, he said he received a determination letter but is still awaiting payment.  

When he calls the labor department during business hours, he gets a voicemail saying there are technical problems. When he calls after hours, he gets a voicemail telling him to try back during business hours.

“It’s just there is absolutely no communication,” he said. “It’s like they don’t care. They go home to a family that’s taken care of. I understand this has been overwhelming and the nation as a whole was unprepared, but consideration of our concerns is all anyone really asks for.”