Ga. business restrictions eased but crush of new jobless claims continues

    Georgia suffered record-breaking unemployment levels in April as more than 624,000 people reported losing their jobs. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Nearly 40% of Georgia’s workforce filed an unemployment claim since COVID-19 cases spiked in the state the first half of March and businesses shut down to contain the spread of the disease.

    Another 241,000 more filed initial claims last week, bringing the total handled by the Georgia Department of Labor to more than 1.8 million since early March, about the time Gov. Brian Kemp warned families to safeguard grandparents following the state’s first confirmed death caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

    The number of Georgians claiming unemployment declined in the early May report as the state lifted some restrictions on businesses, but jobless claims from Georgians seeking unemployment for the first time are still on the rise.

    Still, it could be that Kemp’s gradual lifting of business restrictions at the end of April is helping. After his stay-home order kept Georgia businesses closed for much of last month, restaurants are free to seat customers on a limited basis, hair stylists have been able to book appointments for weeks and remaining restrictions apply chiefly to nightclubs, bars and large gathering places like arenas.

    The bit of good news in the overwhelming dismal job numbers is that continuing unemployment claims in the most recent week ending May 2 fell by 76,000.

    “That tells me that a lot of manufacturing type industries and companies are beginning to open up, that’s what I can infer from that,” said Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center.

    Last week, the Georgia Department of Labor paid $176.2 million in regular unemployment benefits and $450 million from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, part of a $2 trillion relief package approved by President Donald Trump in March.

    Labor department employees are dealing with a claims backlog of about two weeks, said Labor Commissioner Mark Butler during a virtual press conference Thursday. Many Georgians went much longer without getting paid in April.

    “You’re basically probably talking about a couple week backup right now, which, considering the heavy load of claims that we’ve got right now, that’s really not all that bad,” he said. “There are some states I think reporting five or six weeks.”

    The backlog is in part due to the labor department creating a new path for gig workers, freelancers and independent contractors to apply for benefits. These workers were not eligible before.

    Creating the program occupied most of the department’s IT staff for two weeks, Butler said.

    “Six months from now, the story is going to be how many people got unemployment that weren’t supposed to get unemployment? How much fraud was committed?”

    Employers cannot force workers back onto the job if they are staying home to care for children who do not have access to daycare because of the pandemic, Butler said. Bosses are also not permitted to force workers back to the job place if they are vulnerable to COVID-19 or live with someone who is.

    “If you’re an employer who’s been filing for your employees and you’ve called the person back and they’ve told you they cannot get child care and you decide to play tough with them and say, ‘Well if you don’t come back, I’m not going to file anymore,’ that person’s going to be able to go apply for unemployment, and they’re most likely going to be approved,” 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.