Girtz and Butler May 7

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler talked about navigating unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic in a prerecorded YouTube video conference shown May 7. (Screenshot/Athens-Clarke County YouTube channel)

The unemployment rate in the Athens-Clarke County metro area increased from 3.2% in January to 4.2% in March, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the highest unemployment rate for the area since June 2018, when it was 4.3%.

Across the state, the unemployment rate rose about 1% from February to March, according to BLS data. Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said the Georgia Department of Labor has processed more unemployment claims in the past five weeks than in the worst year of the recession.

Butler talked with Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and about how to navigate unemployment as some businesses in Georgia reopen in a pre-recorded YouTube conference on Wednesday.

Butler said that the GDOL increased the amount of earnings an employee can earn a week and still collect unemployment from $50 to $300. If employees earn less than $300 from their employer and state benefits combined a week, they can still collect both state unemployment and the federal $600 a week unemployment payment.

Earning over $300 a week does not disqualify an employee for unemployment payment, but reduces the amount that the employee will receive. As long as someone receives $1 from state or federal unemployment payments, they are eligible to receive the $600 a week from the federal government, according to a GDOL news release.

As businesses in Georgia begin to reopen, employees may be confused about how their unemployment works. Butler said to not file individual claims unless the employees have been told that their employers will no longer file for them.

If a business reopens and an employee has a compromised immune system, is over 60 years old, has school-age children to take care of that cannot be put into child care, or lives with someone who is over 60 or has a compromised immune system, the person may continue to collect unemployment, Butler said. However, if a person does not qualify to stay at home while their business reopens, then that person may not be able to continue to receive unemployment benefits if they choose to not return to work, Butler said.

The best thing to do, he said, is for employees to communicate with their employers.

Butler said that the office prioritizes assisting people who have issues with their unemployment claims and are not yet getting paid unemployment benefits. He said people calling the GDOL and trying to visit the offices creates more delays in the process.

“You’re still not going to get help any faster because we only have a limited amount of individuals that work in those offices that can help you. In the meantime, they’re also trying to process claims,” Butler said in the YouTube conference.

Butler said the already limited number of staff has also been a problem when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. He said the affected office has to be shut down for the required amount of days or until every employee can be tested, which further delays the number of unemployment claims that can be processed.

The GDOL is still hiring, Butler said. The first people they reached out to were retirees who retired in the last three years, he said. These people already had training, and were more efficient to hire. Butler said it takes “weeks and weeks” of training to get an employee to become proficient in their work.

Since the GDOL relies on money from the federal government based on the amount of unemployment claims it receives, it had low revenues and low numbers of staff in January, when unemployment was at a record low, Butler said. The GDOL had over 2,200 employees in 2009, but in January this year had about 1,000 employees, he said.

Both the online claim filing system and the employer-filed claims are helping the GDOL process the increasing claims faster, Butler said. Since the employer-filed claims already have verified information about both the employer and the employee, they can be processed within about a week, he said. However, individual-filed claims must be verified with employers and checked for fraudulence, which Butler said can take four to five weeks.

Butler also gave advice to employers filing claims. Employers must file partial claims for their employees during the COVID-19 health crisis, according to the GDOL website. He said if they have not filed unemployment for a worker they laid off several weeks ago, then they are already out of compliance and filing now will not help them regain compliance. Employers who do not file partial claims will be required to reimburse GDOL for the full amount of benefits paid to their employees, according to the GDOL website.

He also suggested that businesses keep a spreadsheet of coronavirus-related layoffs. He said to keep people on the COVID-19 temporary layoff list, even if some of the employees will eventually be permanently laid off, until the GDOL releases information about switching over to individual claims. As long as employees are filed with the coronavirus-related temporary layoff claims, the business won’t be charged for those employees.

The GDOL is considering making the employer-filed claims a permanent aspect of unemployment filing. Butler said that the GDOL is also considering working on a way to separate temporary coronavirus-related unemployment claims from permanent layoff claims, but for now, employers should continue to file all their laid off employees under the temporary coronavirus-related claims.

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