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City of Statesboro paid for council member’s unemployment benefits
Claim was for loss of unrelated job, say Mack and city staffers
venus mack
Venus Mack

The Georgia Department of Labor billed the city of Statesboro’s unemployment insurance account for payments on a claim by City Councilwoman Venus Mack at times between March 2020 and the end of March 2021. But the city never cut council members’ pay or laid off any workers during the pandemic. 

A GDOL claim determination form dated March 29, 2020, indicated that Mack was awarded $114 weekly benefits for 14 weeks for a maximum amount of $1,596 with the city of Statesboro listed as the employer. 

A quarterly GDOL statement provided by an anonymous source shows that the city was billed 100% of $252 in benefits for Mack during the quarter ending March 31, 2021. A statement obtained from City Hall on a follow-up open records request shows the city was charged $378 for Mack’s benefits for the quarter ended Dec. 31, 2020. 

So the city was charged at least $630 based on Mack’s claim, more recently than 14 weeks after March 2020.

Mack and city the government’s Human Resources Director Demetrius Bynes and City Manager Charles Penny say that the charges resulted from Mack’s loss of a different job, unrelated to her service as a city elected official. But a Georgia Department of Labor spokesperson said the system does not work the way the Statesboro officials described.  

The Statesboro Herald first learned of the unemployment charges when the anonymous source supplied the March 31 quarterly statement in early August.  The Herald interviewed Bynes and Penny on Aug. 13 and phoned Mack on Aug. 16, asking if she had claimed unemployment on her city position. 

“No, not from the city," Mack said. "When the whole pandemic happened I used to work at United Ground Express, which is United Airlines, and I got unemployment compensation from that job. I'm not sure if unemployment just pulled from the city because ... I don't know how they do it, but to my knowledge, no, I have not received anything from the city of Statesboro." 

The United Airlines job had been part-time at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. She was laid off and returned to work briefly before the job was eliminated. Mack continues to operate a Statesboro business, The Glam Bar Salon, and had initially also sought benefits due to a brief shutdown there, she said. 

The Herald filed a Georgia Open Records Act request with the city Aug. 19 for quarterly unemployment statements listing any of the City Council members and any resulting correspondence with the Department of Labor. On Aug. 24 the city emailed several pieces of correspondence in response to this request, but no quarterly statements. 

Then the online news organization The Georgia Virtue, which is not affiliated with the Statesboro Herald, published a story Sept. 20 about the unemployment charges. The Georgia Virtue posted an image of the Dec. 31 quarterly statement and reported this was the only statement the city had released in response to its records request. 

The Statesboro Herald then filed a specific request Sept. 24 for all quarterly unemployment statements the city received with Mack’s name, and this time received only the Dec. 31 statement and still not he March 31 statement. 

 

Staff explanation 

Bynes and Penny have explained the charges in terms of the Georgia Department of Labor searching among employers for someone to charge for Mack’s unemployment benefits and finding her on the city’s payroll. 

“What  I  believe has  happened is she  was  let go or discharged from her  previous employer and so therefore since she's on the city's  payroll, they're reaching for  that previous employer, as well  as us,  to  pay  her unemployment,” Bynes said Aug. 13. 

Penny emphasizes a distinction between the city’s employees and its elected officials, who receive pay and benefits but are not considered employees for unemployment eligibility. As a council member, Mack receives a $7,575 annual salary in biweekly installments. 

“She's not a city employee,” Penny said Sept. 24. “The Department of Labor goes through and they search payrolls and they find her as a public official on our payroll and then they charge back to us. Now can we challenge it? I don't know, but we'll ask." 

Mack was one of three individuals listed in the Dec. 31 statement, and one of two on the March 31 statement. Bynes pointed out, as an example of the city being billed for a claim after someone’s loss of a later job, that another person on the Dec. 31, 2020, statement had left employment with the city July 1, 2019. 

 

The city paid 

In a reply email Tuesday, Bynes said that the city paid the unemployment charges shown on the statements and had not requested reimbursement. 

“The City of Statesboro paid the amounts invoiced by the Georgia Department of Labor,” he wrote. “Once determinations are made by the Georgia Department of Labor, the City pays the invoice. Reimbursement has not been requested since an employment relationship exists or existed with all listed individuals.” 

The city did not initiate the application “or in any way encourage the Georgia Department of Labor to assign a portion of her unemployment benefits to the City government,” Bynes wrote. “Ms. Mack has not been treated differently from any other current or former employee of the City.” 

Phoned again Friday, Mack said that she never listed her city service in her unemployment applications. 

“I never put the city down, never, because I’m not an employee with the city of Statesboro, so I didn’t even put that down at all on any of my applications,” she said. 

But Mack said the GDOL apparently picked up the fact that she was on the city payroll and initially denied her claim from the other job, so she had to appeal. The city staff then made efforts to clarify the situation to the GDOL, she said. 

Among the documents the city provided in August was a statement on city letterhead dated April 13, 2020 and signed by Capricia Westbrook, then executive assistant in the city manager’s office 

“Venus Mack is an elected official for the City of Statesboro,” the note stated. “She is currently employed as such and will continue to be paid bi-weekly for this service.” 

It was addressed only “To Whom it May Concern” but grouped with an April 27, 2020 fax cover sheet, with the subject line “Venus Mack” to “GDOL” at an Atlanta number. 

On Friday, Mack and Bynes both emailed the reporter a letter signed by Penny dated July 16, 2020, addressed at the top to “Georgia Department of Labor” and “To Whom it May Concern.” 

After stating that the letter was to clarify Mack’s role, Penny wrote that Mack is an elected official, representing District 3 on the City Council. 

“She is a policy maker and is not an employee of the City,” Penny said in the letter. “As an elected official, she receives a bi-weekly stipend, health insurance and is enrolled in the retirement program.” 

 

GDOL spokesperson 

2020 was the Georgia Department of Labor’s busiest year ever for unemployment claims. More recently, many of its personnel were still working from home and could be reached only by email or voicemail, Bynes noted. The newspaper had received no callbacks from single voicemail messages left with the department’s Statesboro office and Atlanta headquarters in August. 

But the GDOL’s Director of Communications Kersha Cartwright returned a call Wednesday. Citing claimant confidentiality, she declined to discuss the specific case. But when the Statesboro officials’ theory that the department reached out to the city among other employers was described, Cartwright gave a direct answer. 

“It does not work that way,” she said. “We don't split it up and charge multiple employers, because what we're looking at is, is someone eligible for benefits based on being unemployed through no fault of their own when that employer has paid unemployment insurance on their behalf." 

The GDOL bases its determination of benefits only on information provided in the claimant’s application, she said. 

“We are always going to base the employer that is charged with the unemployment on the last one listed that you were separated from,” Cartwright said. 

She also said that employers as well as employees have “every right to appeal” the decisions.  

 

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