End of the line for jobless Georgians reliant on $300 weekly federal boost

By: - June 25, 2021 3:00 am

Georgia’s governor and labor commissioner are allowing a $300 federal weekly boost to jobless benefits to expire this weekend, arguing it was a disincentive for people to get a job. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Georgia is set to cut off extended federal unemployment benefits by this weekend, threatening to end relief aid to more than 218,00 Georgians who used the money to get through the pandemic, according to a report from the National Employment Law Project.

On Saturday, Georgia will stop participating in a host of federal programs enhancing state unemployment during the pandemic, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance which provides benefits for normally exempt independent contractors and gig workers, extended weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and the weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation providing an additional $300 to all benefits.

Last month, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans to stop participating in the programs, saying they amount to an incentive for Georgians to stay on the couch rather than find a job. 

Workers are getting the message, Butler said.

“We saw the number of claims filed this week drop by almost 2,000 and anticipate this number to continue to fall as Georgians return to the workforce,” he said in a statement Thursday. “After 66 weeks of benefits during the pandemic and the release of over $22.5 billion, we look forward to refocusing our organization on reemployment and helping claimants find a career path that will provide the stability and support necessary to provide for their families.” 

The changes to the unemployment system are likely to drive some people back into full-time work, said University of Georgia associate professor of economics Ian Schmutte. But economists disagree about how strong that effect will be. 

“Other factors continue to keep people out of work, including the absence of consistent and safe child care, particularly for parents of children too young to be vaccinated,” Schmutte said. “Workers may also fear the possibility of a new variant or pandemic surge that might put them out of work again, and so are holding out for jobs that are not vulnerable to a pandemic shutdown.”

Lauren Crace and Marcellus Rowe protested outside the Georgia Department of Labor headquarters in Atlanta Thursday ahead of the end of expanded unemployment benefits in the state. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

That rings true for Lauren Crace, an organizer of a small protest outside the Department of Labor headquarters in Atlanta Thursday. She worked in the flooring industry before she was laid off when the pandemic hit in last March. Crace has a young child and also helps care for her mother-in-law, whose immune system has been weakened by cancer treatments. She said she’s applied for hundreds of jobs, but everything she’s found would either make her uncomfortable caring for her mother-in-law or pay significantly less than she made before the pandemic.

“The jobs that I am finding are $20,000 a year less than what I made previously, so to pay child care on top of that, I wouldn’t be doing myself justice. It would make it difficult to be able to pay my bills, to be able to live and eat and function,” she said.

The $300 payments have provided enough to keep a roof over her head and gas in the tank while she fills out applications, she said.

“That is the only thing that has kept my household afloat during this, even though it is considerably less than what I was making prior to the pandemic, it did allow me to be able to afford to keep my house and keep my cars,” she said. “Without those things, I can’t search for a job.”

Applying for unemployment will also change after Saturday, as work search requirements will again become mandatory.

Georgians filing claims for benefits must register with EmployGeorgia, the state’s reemployment system. They will be asked to include their social security number, create a searchable resume or upload a searchable resume to the site and submit three work search contacts for each week payments are requested.

Bosses are hoping these restored requirements along with the end of federal benefits will prod reticent workers back into the workforce. Employers in the leisure and hospitality sector of the economy have reported particular difficulty hiring workers to keep Georgia’s restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues running. 

But even with the changes, it could take longer to add staff than those employers would like, Schmutte said.

“The reality is that it just takes time for workers and businesses to find good, stable employment connections, because not every worker is a good fit for every job,” he said. “My recommendation is for employers to find ways to make their jobs more attractive to workers. This may include raising wages, but they could also find ways to be flexible with workers who have childcare needs, and most of all to be patient—getting everybody back to work is like filling seats on a bus. It takes some time.”

Some economists worry that pulling the additional jobless benefits could lead to a short-term reduction in consumer spending, which could create a stumbling block on the road to full employment, he added. Increased unemployment benefits were also credited with boosting state revenues during the past year when Georgia lawmakers were prepared for a budget crunch.

Many workers say they simply do not want to go back to jobs where they received low pay, no benefits, uncertain schedules and no respect from bosses or customers. 

Claudia Andrade, another organizer at the protest, said the experience of living through the pandemic has convinced her to go back to school and work toward a more fulfilling career.

“There’s this misconception that people on unemployment don’t want to work, and that’s wrong,” she said. “The problem is that people don’t want to go back to their crappy jobs that paid the minimum wage. You have to work not one or two, but sometimes three jobs. It’s the culture of hustle, and it’s because your job doesn’t pay you the bare minimum anymore. There’s this idea that you have to grind, you have to hustle in order to make it, but it’s because the jobs right now do not pay you a living wage. You have to find that somewhere else.”

Though the $300 payments are set to expire soon, some out-of-work Georgians say they are yet to receive any of the money they are due.

Financial analyst Stephane Bessy showed up at the labor department headquarters Thursday not knowing there was a protest. Bessy filed a claim in February after he was laid off in January, but he hasn’t gotten a response by phone or email. He decided to come by in person, but labor department buildings are closed to the public. A security guard gave him a list of numbers to call. 

“I’ve been getting by from my savings since January when I was laid off, and thank God I’m an investor too,” he said. “But still, I’ve paid into unemployment and I’m supposed to get something out of it, and I haven’t gotten anything at all. And it’s my first time ever applying for unemployment in the United States, I’ve never done that. Like if I’m in between jobs, I’ll just live off my savings until I find another job, but this time around, I needed unemployment, and I’ve been paying into this thing since I’ve been working, so I don’t understand.”

The labor department is facing a lawsuit alleging it violated the law by not delivering prompt enough service to people applying for benefits. 

Last week, 20,698 Georgians filed their first unemployment claims, down 1,826 from the week before. That’s a big drop from April 2020, when more than 290,000 Georgians filed initial claims during the first full week of the month.

Georgia’s unemployment rate for May was 4.1%, down from 4.3% in April and below the national rate of 5.8%.

The Georgia Department of Labor announced Thursday it has processed more than 4.9 million regular unemployment insurance claims since March 21, 2020, more than the last 10 years prior to the pandemic combined. The state has paid over $22.5 billion in state and federal benefits in the past 66 weeks.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. 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.