Jobless claims slow, struggles remain for record number of idled workers

    Bri Terrell of Decatur was let go from her catering job in March, but she said she still hasn't received the back pay she is owed. Contributed by Bri Terrell

    This post was updated May 28, 6 p.m. to include comments at an afternoon Georgia Department of Labor press conference.

    More than 164,000 Georgians filed new unemployment claims during the week that ended May 23, down from nearly 178,000 the week before, but joblessness remains historically high as the state economy continues to reel from the effects of COVID-19.

    During the first week of March, only about 4,000 Georgians filed new claims, before the state ordered most Georgians to stay home and many businesses to close to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

    In the past ten weeks, the Georgia Department of Labor has issued nearly $1.1 billion in state unemployment benefits and nearly $2.6 billion in federal money to 651,000 Georgians, but even some who have received payments report having problems.

    Bri Terrell of Decatur was laid off from her job at Alpharetta-based Apple Spice Catering March 15. She was part of the first wave of workers hit by the pandemic, who were largely employed in food service, hospitality and transportation.

    Workers in the food service and hospitality industries have had more claims processed over the past ten weeks than those in any other industry, according to the state labor department. Those in the health care and social assistance, retail, administrative and support services and manufacturing fields have also faced heavy layoffs, the state labor department says.

    Terrell filed for unemployment the same day she was laid off, and she got her first payment seven weeks later, but it only included three weeks of backpay. She’s gotten nothing else since, despite numerous calls and emails, she said.

    “It’s very frustrating,” she said. “Anxiety is at its all-time high. Meanwhile, the most nerve-wracking and stressful feeling is not being able to pay rent.”

    Terrell said she’s $1,700 behind on rent with no income. Her landlord has even entered her home unannounced seeking payment.

    “We had a big disagreement, and finally when my back pay came, I assured him I would pay every week to catch up,” she said. “Well, payments came and stopped on May 5.”

    Bri Terrell’s children, 16-year-old Arie and 2-year-old Kylar.

    Now, she’s staying at home and trying to balance caring for her two children with navigating Georgia’s online unemployment system.

    “I try to make life as good as possible with what I can get,” she said. “I had to prioritize, prioritize what bill will get what amount, and budget, because at this level of uncertainty. My mind has been telling me to prioritize and put my family first. I feel bad for my landlord because he may be in a bad situation since I can’t pay full rent.”

    Terrell said her kids are fed and doing OK, though she has had to visit food banks and borrow money to keep the cupboard stocked.

    “Thank God for a family unit,” she said. “Most of our surviving has been based off of us helping each other, but you get tired of asking for help too, you know?”

    Georgians who file correct claims that are not disputed by their employers should expect to see their claims processed in about a month, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said Thursday.

    “You’re probably realistically talking about 30, 35 days right now, which is higher than what we normally have, but you’re talking about the sheer volume of it and getting to it, that right there is us working 12, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, getting to those,” he said, adding that staff is working on new ways to automate parts of the claims process.

    Displaced workers requesting benefits should not call or email to check on their status or file additional claims because that takes attention away from people who have specific problems they need to have addressed.

    “If you got that email that came back right after you applied that says we received your claim, we did receive your claim,” he said. “It is being worked on, we’re going to get to it. It is taking longer right now than it did before this happened, and it’s just because of the sheer magnitude of the volume that we’re seeing right now.”

    Terrell said she feels for the overwhelmed labor department workers, but families like hers need money to live 

    “I can only pray something gives,” she said. “I understand that the Department of Labor is behind, but it’s seeming they just can’t handle this workload. It’s a lot of us just scared, unsure, stressed out and just want some answers as to what’s going on with our money to survive.”

    The number of people filing for unemployment for a second week or more also dropped in Georgia, just under 729,000 for the week ending May 16, down from 790,000 the week before.

    The Georgia Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund that pays for state unemployment benefits carried a balance of nearly $1.7 billion as of Tuesday, down 35% from March 24. The state depleted the fund following the 2008 Great Recession and took out a federal loan to continue paying benefits.

    Nationwide, more than 2.1 million workers filed initial claims last week, and more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance since mid-March.

    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.