It took a little over eight months but the Georgia Department of Labor announced yesterday it has finally reached a point where no regular unemployment claims for workers displaced by COVID-19 remain in its queue.
The department says that most applications being filed now could be processed within a week, although some applicants could see longer waits.
“Any delays you are currently hearing regarding claims are not related to processing,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “We are processing claims at pre-COVID rates. The claims that are taking a while are the ones where there is a disagreement about the separation reason between the employer and employee.
Butler described this process as “similar to a court case traveling through the judicial system.” Although time-consuming, he said appeals can be escalated all the way to the superior court.
The GDOL explained further in a release, stating, “A common misconception during the pandemic has stemmed from a misinterpretation of the Benefits Determination letter the claimant receives that shows the period and wages used to calculate a claimant’s weekly benefit amount. This letter is not a statement of approval, but only an explanation of the calculated benefit amount.”
After the claim is processed, a claimant’s last employer is notified and provided 10 calendar days to respond, the department said. After the employer has had an opportunity to respond to the claim, the separation reason is reviewed and a determination to allow or deny benefits is released and mailed to the claimant’s address. Claimants then have the right to appeal all decisions released, including the weekly benefit amount and the determination of eligibility.
Despite a decrease in the state unemployment rate since the beginning of the pandemic earlier this year, GDOL officials say the overall number of people out of work is still high. This has led to an “extreme increase in claims volume,” the department says. And although they’re caught up on all the pending claims, experienced workers continue to be hired by the Department of Labor to assist in fact-finding, eligibility determinations, and appeals.
Georgia’s unemployment rate reached 12% back in April due in large part to the state shut down of businesses. It has dropped to almost half of that (6.4%) today.
GOOD FOR SOME, NOT FOR OTHERS
According to the state Department of Labor, the sector with the most weekly unemployment claims processed is Accommodation and Food Services. Many restaurants across the state that shuttered doors in April were never able to recover and re-open.
Thankfully for Jay Reeder, owner of Fenders Diner in Cornelia, that wasn’t the case. But he says the unemployment assistance, in combination with what applicants were also receiving from the federal government through the stimulus bill, created a major headache for the newly reopened restaurant. Reeder says he’s still battling the effects.
“We’ve been spending thousands a month trying to recruit people,” Reeder said. “We’ve increased wages 50% or more trying to recruit people and we spent a ton of money just trying to get people to show up for an interview.”
After all the effort, time and money spent, Reeder says they still had trouble getting people to come in for interviews.
But he wasn’t alone.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Reeder says being short-staffed and unable to find the help he needed, he talked with current Fenders employees he hired, hoping to make some connections through them that would lead to more experienced workers coming on board at the Cornelia restaurant.
“Almost to a one, everybody says they know a lot of people and they’re not working right now because they’re sitting at home on unemployment,” Reeder said.
Then, after noticing a decrease in the quality of food packaging from some of his distributors, Reeder made a call to find out why.
“They reported back that the food production companies can’t get enough people to work to package things correctly,” Reeder said.
There could be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for Reeder and other local businesses.
The number of people receiving regular unemployment decreased by more than 13,000 over the last week. But labor officials say the 23,827 people filing initial claims last week is still unusually high compared to the start of the year.
In addition, the GDOL announced last week that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), an initiative under the CARES Act that provided assistance to tens of thousands of self-employed Georgians, IRS Form 1099 workers and anyone not eligible for regular unemployment, is set to end soon.
Based on figures provided by the department, that means for up to 40,000 PUA claimants, these benefits have already stopped or will be exhausting in the next few weeks after reaching the 39-week limit in accordance with federal program guidelines. Although just over 1,100 people filed initial claims for PUA last week, Reeder said he’s encouraged to see some part of it end.
“I’m looking forward to people wanting to get back to work,” Reeder said. “We have a lot of small businesses that are struggling right now. A lot of people don’t realize it but this unemployment assistance that has kept people on the sidelines and not working has been probably the greatest challenge to small businesses during the pandemic.”