Help is long overdue: Georgia residents suffered significant delays in receiving unemployment benefits
Their jobs at the trampoline park earned Constance and Jermaine Summers just enough to get by.
Working for $ 12 an hour, the couple could make enough cash to continue renting their tiny mobile home in a suburb of Atlanta, along with monthly payments for the eight-year-old car they carefully drove. Their children, ages 12 and 13, had friends and a space to play in the mobile home community where they lived. When tips arrived, the couple could purchase occasional treats for their children.
But since last March, the family has lost almost everything.
As the pandemic raged, the trampoline park darkened and they were made redundant. At first, they received unemployment benefits. Then, without explanation, their unemployment benefits stopped coming. The family has been evicted. Because the one-bedroom apartment they moved into does not accept pets, they had to take their beloved family dog to a local fire station.
In addition, they lost their car. Eventually, both found new jobs, but at considerably lower pay. Until the couple get back on their feet, their children live with a parent in Texas.
It didn’t have to be that way. If they had obtained all of the unemployment benefits to which they were entitled, the couple could have paid their bills until they found a new job. But like thousands of Georgia residents whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the pandemic, they have been abandoned by the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL), whose extreme delays in processing, paying and hearing cases of appeals regarding unemployment claims have opened wide rips in the social safety net. .
The family later learned that their unemployment benefits had ceased because their employer had appealed their eligibility for benefits. The family appealed the disqualification but have yet to receive a court date.
“It’s supposed to be a bridge, the unemployment system, but it threw us off a cliff, it wasn’t a bridge,” said Jermaine Summers, 40. He estimates that he owes him about 17 weeks of benefits, or about $ 7,000. His wife, he says, should have received about $ 15,000.
“I have been working since I was 15 in the state of Georgia, and for me, having put all that money into this system and seeing how my life fell apart when I needed it most. ‘Help is a slap in the face,’ he said. “I’m not looking for a document but I mean, good is good and bad is bad, and it is extremely bad.”
Seeking to right this wrong for people across Georgia who find themselves in similar straits, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced in June that it, with its co-counsel at Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP, represents a group of residents suing GDOL, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and the State of Georgia. The lawsuit argues that significant delays in filing unemployment claims during the pandemic violate federal and state laws.
“People are still waiting”
The plaintiffs are asking a judge to certify the lawsuit, which was filed in Fulton County Superior Court, as a class action suit on behalf of people who have not received a determination of their admissibility or a hearing in their administrative appeal, or who simply did not have received unemployment benefits that they were entitled to collect from the department, which is increasingly inaccessible to the public by phone and email, in person and on its website Internet. The plaintiffs also ask the judge to order the defendants to obey the law and order the state to pay damages to those affected by the delays.
The lawsuit argues that the department violates state law requiring decisions and payments to be made “promptly.” He also argues that the delays violate complainants’ 14th Amendment due process rights under the US Constitution. Since filing the complaint, the SPLC and its co-counsel have received emails and phone calls from over 300 frustrated and discouraged UI claimants. They are in desperate need of help, claiming long months of delay in processing and payment of their claims by GDOL, and the extreme inaccessibility of GDOL, its staff and leaders – including Butler – in resolving of their complaints.
Ministry officials admitted it was inundated with requests, especially last year. They also blamed previous underfunding by state lawmakers for sapping some of the agency’s capacity. However, the agency maintains that it has caught up.
In April, US Democratic senses Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, along with the state’s six US Democratic deputies, called on the US Department of Labor to investigate delays in distributing unemployment benefits.
SPLC lawyers and their partners in local legal aid organizations have been following GDOL issues for over eight months. When the pandemic forced employees to work remotely, it became increasingly difficult for them to deal with the deluge of complaints. Making an appointment was becoming more and more trying. Candidates often go months without being able to reach anyone in the department. The delays in processing claims appeals extended to over six months.
Even after the majority of Georgian government agencies have started to return to work in person, GDOL headquarters and career centers remain closed to the public. Extreme delays persist. Meanwhile, people are losing their homes and many are increasingly unable to feed themselves and their families.
“This is a state that just isn’t serving its constituents,” said Emily Early, senior oversight lawyer for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “Yes, there has been an increase in claims due to the pandemic and the department was not equipped to deal with this deluge of claims. However, it has now been 16 months since the pandemic started and people are still waiting. “
The numbers tell the story. Unemployment levels in Georgia have been devastating during the pandemic. At its peak, they reached 12.6%. The total number of regular initial unemployment claims filed in the state between March and December 2020 exceeded 4.1 million. During the same period in 2019, approximately 194,000 such applications were filed. While approximately 400,000 residents of Georgia are currently receiving benefits, as of March, another 180,000 had not yet reviewed their claims. Over 40,000 other claims have yet to be adjudicated.
The Georgian government has not taken up the challenge. In the first quarter of 2020, it ranked 28th among states in providing unemployment insurance benefits and 40th in advising applicants whether or not they are eligible to receive benefits. In the first quarter of this year, it took longer for jobless claims to be adjudicated in Georgia than in all other states except one.
In addition, the economic recovery from the pandemic has been slower for black and Latin workers, marked by a 10% slower rate of decline in jobless claims than for their white and Asian counterparts. In May, grievances among black workers in Georgia were 37% higher than all others, highlighting the disproportionately higher layoff risks for black workers during an economic downturn, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“At this point, it is a problem of deprivation of economic rights. Early said. “People pay into the system with the hope that when they need and qualify for unemployment insurance, they will get it. These are people – from low-wage workers in the retail and restaurant industries to entrepreneurs, business leaders and other professional white-collar workers – who want to work. But when they can’t in these difficult times as the economy tries to recover, these public benefit systems and their “officials” are supposed to help them get back on their feet. “
“More than heartbreaking”
For Jermaine and Constance Summers, the struggle to get back on their feet is filled with anxiety and loss. Jermaine Summers has donated blood so many times to earn extra money that the techs couldn’t find a vein the last time he walked in. Recently he landed a job as a clerk in an auto parts store, but he earns less than half as much as he used to. Right now, the couple is about $ 500 missing on their bills, and the apartment’s $ 400 rent is due. Summers said he had considered suicide more than once. Calling the kids four or five times a day helps, he said.
As for Constance Summers, she’s trying to move on. A few months ago, she took a job at a pet supermarket and is training as a pet groomer, a position that will earn her a higher salary. She describes the fight for benefits as “more than heartbreaking” and says she doesn’t believe she will ever get the unemployment money she is owed.
“I was running in so many circles it was like I was dizzy and falling,” Summers said of his months of calling and emailing GDOL, looking for payments. “I would get to the point where I would burst into tears.
“I really wish the people in these systems would just take a little longer to listen to the people saying, ‘Hey, I really need your help, hey, something’s wrong.’ Don’t push people like me aside, ”Summers said. “We are people who have worked their entire lives. We don’t deserve to be completely ignored when we need help.
Photo by Chris Rank / Corbis via Getty Images