By the end of the week, it is likely that nearly one in 10 Georgians will have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted daily lives across the state in mid-March, according to Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.
“We’re going to see, before this week is over, probably more claims processed in a four-week period than we saw in the entire worst year of the recession,” he said in an online press conference Thursday. “It’s kind of really kind of hard for some folks to wrap their brains around that, but you’re talking, roughly, it’s going to probably exceed just over a million claims in just a four-week period.”
In the same time period, the department issued over half a billion dollars in unemployment benefits.
But one group that has yet to be paid is gig workers, independent contractors and freelancers. These workers are newly eligible for benefits as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by President Donald Trump last month.
From entertainers to Uber drivers, many of Georgia’s self-employed are facing hard times as more people stay in self-isolation.
Retrofitting these newly-eligible workers into the existing unemployment system is not easy, Butler said.
“Quite frankly, if the federal government or Congress would have asked pretty much any department of labor in any state in the nation if this was a good idea, they would have told them no, because we are not built for this,” Butler said. “We don’t have a system in place to handle sending out money for individuals we have no information for.”
Due to federal regulations, the state labor department must confirm the gig workers are ineligible for state benefits before the process can move forward. The next step, sending emails out to applicants who could potentially be eligible, is due to start next week, said labor department communications director Kersha Cartwright.
“It’s not an easy process,” she said. “We are still required by the state and federal government to verify wages. Sometimes this is … time-consuming, so we have to make sure we are following the steps that are required by the federal government and following those regulations closely, or we will not be reimbursed.”
State labor department employees will then process the applicants’ financial information, verify identities, determine what benefits they are eligible for and create a process to pay qualified workers who lost jobs, Butler said.
“We’re currently in the process of building that system here in Georgia to get it done, and from what I can tell from talking to other state administrators, we’re ahead of most other states,” Butler said.
When employers file jobless claims for workers, they can be processed as quickly as a week.
But when an individual files for unemployment, processing can take more than three times as long, even during normal circumstances, Butler said.
“If we were not having a pandemic right now, and it was just normal times, if somebody were to get laid off, it takes about right around 21 days or so for a claim to go through the normal process,” he said. “People say ‘Why does it take so long?’ We have to verify who you are, where you work, and then give your employer some time in order to make a comment to either agree or disagree with the reason why you have asked to receive unemployment benefits.”
Butler said members of his staff are working overtime to deal with the glut of claims, with some employees spending 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, to relieve the claims backlog.
“Our employees are basically showing up to work every day with full voicemail boxes and thousands of emails in their inboxes right now,” he said. “Just the sheer volume that our employees are having to deal with right now, to answer questions and to get back with people, is unimaginable.”
Speaking to the press at a tour of a temporary hospital facility at the Georgia World Congress Center, Kemp praised Butler’s work and urged Georgians waiting for benefits to have patience.
“I would tell people, 80% of their call volume is people that don’t understand that just because they get their confirmation number, that their form has been approved, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have a check in their bank account in the next day or two. … We would urge people to let the process work. I know it’s frustrating, but just have a little patience I promise they are throwing everything that they have at it right now,” Kemp said.
The labor department maintains a “pre-recession” work force of about 1,000 employees, Butler said. The department is considering partnering with private sector call centers.
“However, the problem with the call centers is now even if you put 1,000 more phone lines available, it’s still not going to keep up with the call volume we’ve got right now,” he said.