Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is aware of the criticism of the state’s slow response to the 1.8 million unemployment claims filed since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Guest speaker for an online St. Simons Rotary Club meeting Tuesday, Butler said his offices were staffed to handle 20,000 claims a month before the outbreak. In the last two months, as many claims have been filed as during the past four or five years with the same number of staff, he said.
Social distancing and other health precautions make it impossible to safely hire and train new workers.
“There is nothing to compare it to,” he said of the challenges facing his office. “This is the one everything else will be compared to.”
Additional responsibilities placed on states like handling the distribution of federal funds have made the job even more difficult, he said.
One of the “massive changes” is the new eligibility of self-employed business owners to qualify for federal aid through state labor departments. So far, 133,000 self-employed claims have been filed with the Georgia office.
“The majority of (self-employed) people don’t normally qualify for unemployment,” he said.
The state had to create a new computer program for the self employed since the labor department doesn’t keep track of their earnings. The new program, which includes an anti-fraud system, delayed unemployment payouts by more than two weeks.
During a conference call with federal labor department officials shortly after the state health advisories were issued, Butler said he “blistered them” for the way the federal response was handled.
He said federal officials should be the ones to distribute payments to self-employed business owners collecting state unemployment benefits since they have the financial information to determine how much they are eligible to receive.
“The self-employed should not have been done through the state unemployment system,” he said. “It could have been handled much better by the feds for verification.”
There have already been some instances of fraud in Georgia, including 95 claims that were filed with instructions to send the money to one bank account, he said.
Butler said his office is being “pulled in 17 different directions” by federal officials.
“It’s been a constant battle to teach them how the real world works,” he said.
But if things go wrong, he knows who will take the blame.
“They’ll come back and point their fingers at us,” he said.
Butler said it’s too early to consider whether unemployment benefits and other federal aid should be extended beyond the end of July.
“We don’t know what the economy is going to look like in July,” he said.
While some people collecting unemployment and federal aid are in no hurry to go back to work, Butler said employers will be looking at job history when they begin hiring.
“We don’t want disincentives for going back to work,” he said. “When this is over, you might want to have a job. These are very challenging times right now.”
The pandemic has also affected some labor department employees, forcing the temporary closure of several offices. The virus also claimed the life of one of his employees.
“It’s touched us in many ways,” he said. “We still need every single body to work every single day.”