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Maggie Lee

Democrats are amplifying unemployment backlog complaints. Latest stop, Decatur.

Maggie Lee
State Rep. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain, at Georgia Department of Labor office in Decatur on Monday. She said Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler should "step up or step out." (Photo by Maggie Lee)

By Maggie Lee

Some Georgians are very unhappy with the state agency that sends out — or sometimes doesn’t send out — unemployment payments.

Count Georgia Democratic legislators among the angry.

And Decatur music manager Nancy Lewis-Pegel.

She’s usually working booking musicians at venues all over the world.  But now, nobody’s touring. So Lewis-Pegel said she applied to the state in April for benefits that even contract workers could get, thanks to temporary federal cash.

She said that on May 3, the Georgia Department of Labor sent a letter saying she would be assessed for benefits.

But it hasn’t happened, she said.

“Every time I call, they say ‘We’re taking the backlog,'” Lewis-Pegel said. “I’m starting to get impatient.”

Lewis-Pegel said she knows the pandemic is unprecedented, but she said the state Department of Labor has had months to sort it out.

Atlantan Liston Broughton said he was going back and forth with the Georgia Department of Labor even before COVID-19.

But more than he spoke about himself, he about folks who are on the financial edge, who might already be losing their phone or internet and can’t get in touch with the Department of Labor. Broughton said the offices need to open for in-person visits.

It’s time do “what can be done to get this problem solved before a lot of people … are put into poverty by our government,” Broughton said.

Atlanta resident Liston Broughton said unemployment offices ought to be open so everyone can have access. (Photo by Maggie Lee)

Broughton and Lewis-Pegel came in person to the Decatur edition of a series of press conferences and semi-virtual rallies that Democratic state legislators have called at unemployment offices across the state in the past few weeks.

Broughton and Lewis-Pegel echo the thousands of Georgians who congregate on Twitter and Facebook for mutual aid and moral support in quests to get unemployment payments. Witness Twitter user Feisty Heifer, real name Sabrina Hogan, a private person-turned-folk hero who helps shepherd people through the process.

Lewis-Pegel is part of a 12,000-member Facebook group for Georgians who are trying to get unemployment. When somebody in the community gets their check, Lewis-Pegel said, you’re happy for them. But you also wonder where your check is.

Stone Mountain Democratic state Rep. Karen Bennett says her staff are doing what other state legislators’ staff are doing: collecting names and information from the constituents who call asking for help, and forwarding that to the Department of Labor.

“We are talking about hard-working Georgians who are not asking for handouts,” Bennett said. “We are talking about hard-working Georgians who have paid their taxes. Their employers have paid unemployment taxes on their behalf.”

The office of Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said last week that  92% of valid claimants had received benefits in the past 19 weeks, where a payment has been requested.

But many others just aren’t eligible, the office said in a press release.

According to the department, over 135,000 claims alone had been filed by people who hadn’t worked in 18 months, making them ineligible for regular unemployment payments.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

People can’t get unemployment if they were fired for cause or quit.  And many times, the department said, the employer and employee have different versions of what happened and that takes even longer to gather information for a complete decision.

On Monday, Butler said that the department had had to temporarily close 15 centers across the state and several divisions of the state office for a two-week quarantine due to COVID-19 cases and one death.

“We are not immune to this virus and when the average age of your workforce is 53 years of age, you must make decisions that protect your staff and in turn allow us to maintain a healthy workforce to process the 3.3 million claims we have worked since March,” he said via email, adding that the Department of Labor has hired temps.

“All of our services are available online and our staff continues to answer calls, process claims, respond to customer inquiries, and provide assistance to applicants,” he said.

But some of the Democratic lawmakers at the Decatur unemployment office say their constituents are coming to them with things day after day like complaints that there’s no way to correct errors, that it’s unclear how to report that your identity has been stolen, or that you just can’t get anybody on the phone.

Bennett, who doubles as the chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus has some policy demands of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Butler, and the utility regulators on the Georgia Public Service Commission — all Republicans — plus the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The caucus wants cash and manpower directed to the backlog in unemployment claims as well as a pause on evictions and utility shut-offs.

Georgia Democrats have just about the same list of asks.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, blamed the backlog on years and years very conservative budgets under Republican governors and lawmakers.

“When you have people that hate government running government, what do you think is going to happen?” she said.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Rosa Raines August 10, 2020 10:15 pm

    I have been trying to reach dept. of Labor since June 17 when I was locked out of the system, I receive benefits for 5 weeks then was unable to reach any one for help I need help please please help me.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Gwendolyn Zellars Marshall August 13, 2020 12:51 pm

    I’m writing this letter to inform you of the lack of unemployment benefit payments in Georgia. It has been 17 weeks since I filed on April 10, 2020 and to date I’ve not gotten a response from the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) or any payment. I have personally contacted my local state representative office several times and provided information for them to follow up only to get crickets.
    Last week the Georgia lawmakers (state representatives) held press conferences at various GDOL offices and hundreds of people showed up with the same complaint some going back as far as February 2020. According to lawmakers there have been several meetings with Mark Butler, GDOL Commissioner and while I appreciate their efforts still no progress. The lawmakers are now asking Governor Brian Kemp to open the doors to GDOL offices or call in the National Guards to resolve payment back log but in the meantime what am I to do, starve! This issue needs to get more national coverage.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Sherry Foster August 25, 2020 7:34 pm

    I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR many weeks to receive my unemployment checks. Have contacted Mark Butler to no avail. Keep getting replies from his office that they have no authority over claims! WOW he is the labor commissioner and cannot access the files.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Janice Bernhart August 28, 2020 10:27 am

    As a gig worker, I applied for unemployment in early April 2020. I received one email telling me my claim had been received, and one email telling me my claim had been processed. As of today, my status is still listed as “pending” online and I have received no payments. I have tried calling, messaging, emailing, and writing letters–all with no result. No calls are answered, there are no return messages or emails, no communication from the GDOL or Mark Butler at all! Like many others, I have now gone through my savings and will be unable to meet financial obligations beginning September. I have the benefit of having a roof over my head and food on my table, but there are many others who are not so lucky. This is unacceptable!
    Thank you Maggie Lee for writing this article to shed light on the shameful behavior of our political representatives. If there are more rallies being held, or petitions being signed, please keep us informed. Because you can definitely count me in!Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    C. Cabral September 11, 2020 11:56 am

    After filing in March “a payment” finally was deposited. I need someone to address my loss benefits between March 22, 2020 and September 2, 2020.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Tiffany September 18, 2020 9:51 am

    I applied in March when my job closed down. My first claim was never processed I finally reached someone that told me that I would have to re apply in April since they wasn’t clear of how to do things according to the Cares Act. I did so. I received benefits but not the proper payment. I called and gotten different answers from different representatives, I’ve sent 3 emails, and I also filed an appeal. I still haven’t gotten any feedback since beginning of August about the appealReport

    Reply

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