The Georgia Department
of Labor processed 133,820 unemployment insurance claims in the week that ended
March 28, a new record and an 11-fold increase from the previous week.
Georgia’s count was part of a nationwide record one-week total of 6,648,000
initial claims reported Thursday.
Weekly reports from the U.S. Department of Labor include both seasonally adjusted national claim totals and initial, unadjusted weekly state-by-state claims. For the previous week, which ended March 21, the federal report had shown 12,140 claims in Georgia.
But Georgia Department of Labor officials knew that the 12,140 count did not show the full picture and were, as proved correct, expecting a much higher number this week, GDOL Communications Director Kersha Cartwright had told the Statesboro Herald.
“We are seeing huge numbers that are much higher than those we saw during the 2008-2009 recession,” Cartwright said Tuesday.
The numbers in the federal report are of processed claims, and the previous week the state Labor Department had not been able to process claims every day, she explained.
“We were getting our system ready for the great big ramp-up this week, actually,” Cartwright said.
Before the surge began, during the week concluded March 14, the GDOL with its 42 career centers throughout the state, its Atlanta main offices and its online system for filing claims, had processed only 5,259 claims.
From record lows
The nation started the year with unemployment near record lows, and in the last week of February, Georgia processed only 4,867 initial unemployment filings, as seen in an archived federal report.
“When you’re looking at a 3.1% unemployment rate for the state in February, we certainly weren’t prepared for something like this in March,” Cartwright said.
A note supplied by state officials for the latest federal report lists the causes of Georgia’s sudden upturn in claims as “layoffs in the accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, professional, scientific and technical services, administrative, support, waste management, and remediation services and retail trade industries.”
“We are seeing the number of claims filed in Georgia skyrocket to levels we have never experienced before,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said in a press release Thursday. “Our team is working overtime, nights, and weekends to process the tremendous volume – taking time away from their own families to help Georgia’s families.”
The department invited retirees with claims experience back to help with the processing, Cartwright had said Tuesday, but she had no information on the number of temporary workers.
Before last week’s passage of the $2 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package known as the CARES Act, Butler and Gov. Brian Kemp had augmented unemployment benefits in Georgia through rule changes. One change extended the time that workers affected by COVID-19 related layoffs or shutdowns could receive benefits from Georgia’s standard 14-week maximum to 26 weeks.
Now the CARES Act will add another 13 weeks, for a maximum of 39 weeks of benefits, just for those affected by the coronavirus slowdown. The act also provides for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation of $600 weekly in addition to regular state benefits.
State rule changes had expanded eligibility to individuals who need to leave work to take care of someone at-risk or who are at-risk themselves or have to take care of children who are out of school, Cartwright noted.
“So we’re really trying to cover as many people as we possibly can to get us back on track after this is over,” she said.
Although the Georgia Department of Labor’s regional offices, called career centers, are currently closed to the public, employees are working and accessible by phone, Cartwright said. The reporter got a voicemail answer and left a message at (912) 447-0166, a number for the Statesboro Career Center.
The GDOL asks for patience with career centers and with the Atlanta office as voicemail boxes fill up, Cartwright said.
But the department prefers that people use its online resources anyway.
“We’re telling everybody to go to our website, dol.georgia.gov,” she said.
A link entitled “Filing for Unemployment during the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis” appears at the top of the front page. Click on “Read more.”
“That is a page where I have put all of the resources that you could possibly need if you need to file for unemployment right now,” Cartwright said.
It gives filing instructions and video tutorials for two kinds of claims: individual claims that workers file for themselves and employer claims, filed on behalf of employees affected by closures, layoffs of work-reductions. Legislation and rules changes have also made benefits available to contracted and part-time workers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
But employer-filed claims constitute probably 75 to 80% of the current flood, Cartwright said.
“What we are suggesting, and the easiest way to do this, is employer-filed claims,” she said. “It’s easier, it’s faster, the employee gets their money quicker, and then what we all hope is this is just bridging the pay gap right now and we can get those employees back to work.”
In fact, the state has mandated that employers file claims on behalf of employees temporarily laid off or working reduced hours because of COVID-19 effects.
Workers included in employer-filed claims are assigned a personal identification number, or PIN, which they use to select how they would receive benefits, whether on a state-issued debit card or by direct deposit. They can also change their PIN online.
“We’re just asking folks to be patient, we’re working to get their claims filed as quickly as we can,” Cartwright said.
No rate yet
Data on unemployment rates lags behind initial filings for unemployment insurance. A Bureau of Labor Statistics “employment situation report” with a national unemployment rate for March, but not reflecting the latest filings or providing a state breakdown, is due out Friday.