Mar 7, 2022 - News

Georgia left thousands waiting for COVID unemployment aid

Illustration of an upward trend line over a group of people, with others in the background grayed out

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Thousands of Georgians laid off during the COVID pandemic waited weeks, and in some cases several months, to receive their first unemployment check because the state labor department was short-staffed and unprepared, a new state audit says.

Why it matters: The state’s assistance program for unemployed Georgians is funded by employers’ payments. Accessing those benefits should be simple, fast and reliable.

Catch up quick: Using federal funding, Georgia expand its unemployment benefits program after state and local governments closed businesses in an attempt to thwart the pandemic.

  • One month into the pandemic, Georgia’s unemployment rate spiked to 12.5% — nine points higher than February’s jobless rate.
  • State lawmakers, Georgia's congressional delegation and Georgia senators called on the agency to speed the process and notify people when they’d receive their payment.

In the first two months of the pandemic, labor staffers received 9 million calls. Short-staffed and overwhelmed, they answered only 4% of calls, says the audit requested by state lawmakers.

  • Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson’s office was “inundated” with calls from constituents who couldn’t get a response from the labor department, a spokesperson tells Axios.

By the numbers: By April 2020, new unemployment claims had rocketed to 716,000, the audit says. In February, the agency handled roughly 17,000 claims.

  • Compare that to the Great Recession, auditors say, when the number of claims rose over 14 months to a high of 76,000 new claims.

More than 37,000 claimants waited more than 120 days to receive their initial payments. Half of the new claimants received their first check within three weeks.

What they’re saying: Labor commissioner Mark Butler, a Carrollton Republican who announced on March 1 he was not seeking a fourth term, said the unprecedented wave of calls, ineligible applicants, missed deadlines and fraud were likely to blame, 11 Alive reported.

Yes, but: One reason for the backlog, the audit says, was a lack of staff; from 2013 to 2019, the number of staffers who handle the unemployment insurance program decreased by 32%.

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