If you’re a furloughed employee collecting unemployment, you have to submit a weekly claim for your benefits. Except in Georgia.
Georgia requires employers — not the employees themselves — to file for unemployment every week for workers who have been furloughed or had their hours partially reduced, according to a recent emergency rule adopted by the Georgia Department of Labor.
While Georgia’s new rule applies to temporarily laid-off employees, rather than permanently laid-off ones, it has still impacted the vast majority of people in the state filing for unemployment, about 75 percent. The rule change was intended to streamline the process and ease the burden on unemployed people, in this crisis moment where more than 26 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past five weeks.
In practice, some Georgians say it’s left them in limbo if their employer doesn’t file on their behalf every week. Many employers run their payroll at most every two weeks. If the employer misses recertifying them every week, they stand to lose money as they stare down looming bills.
John Woolf, an athletic trainer from Georgia who was recently furloughed, is one of those people. According to Woolf, his employer has missed some weeks, which is making his family’s financial situation increasingly dire.
“Every week that they don’t file, we can’t receive any money,” Woolf told Vox in a recent interview. “I’m missing all these payments, and my employer is saying they’re only going to file every two weeks.”
May 1 has become an anxiety-filled deadline for Woolf’s rent, car payment, and other bills — and he’s worried about subsequent months as well.
“My wife’s working essentially just enough so that my daughter and I can get on her insurance,” he said. But if his benefits don’t come in on time, the family’s financial worries won’t get any easier.
Employer-filed claims account for about 75 percent of the 1.1 million claims the state has processed since March 16, Georgia Department of Labor spokesperson Kersha Cartwright told Vox.
“We mandated there be an employer-filed claim on behalf of that employee,” Cartwright said. “It’s a much quicker, much more efficient automated system.” Rather than the month it takes for an individual claim to be certified, claims from employers can be processed in about a week, she said.
Georgia’s change to its UI system speaks to the challenges many states are facing. Many state UI systems were underfunded and arcane to begin with and are struggling to deal with the crushing load of applications they’ve gotten — now up to 26 million nationwide over the past five weeks. With fewer than 1,000 employees at the Georgia Labor Department to handle these claims, Cartwright said the rule change was meant to help expedite the process.
It’s also created confusion — if employers don’t know they’re supposed to file for employees, or if the employer is based in another state where the rules are different, furloughed employees could wind up missing out. And some employees like Woolf are now stuck, desperately trying to get their employers to file on time as the bills pile up. In some cases, workers are being told by their employers to contact Labor themselves, even though they have limited access to their own claims.
“I’d much rather have the burden be on myself so I could just go in every week,” Woolf told Vox.
Employers filing weekly for unemployment is a relatively untested idea
Georgia is one of a small number of states that are putting more onus on employers to get their employees into state unemployment systems when they’re laid off.
South Carolina is also doing this in specific circumstances, like when an employer is paying employees extra benefits in addition to unemployment. But Georgia is the only state to require employers to file weekly for employees who are furloughed or had partially reduced hours.
More communication between employers and state unemployment offices in the event of mass layoffs can be a good thing, said Michele Evermore, an unemployment expert and senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. Rather than employees having to provide all their information to the state unemployment office, like work history and the reason they were laid off, the employer can do it for all their employees in one fell swoop. As Cartwright mentioned, this helps speed up the process significantly.
“It’s worked pretty well there during mass layoffs, but there’s a difference between telling the employer [to give] the information to the agency and having filing be the employers’ responsibility,” Evermore said. She said employers being responsible for recertifying for their employees every week could be problematic.
“The way I would prefer it to happen is employers notify the agency about who they laid off [and] how much they were paid,” she said. “But if the employers aren’t filing, that’s a real problem; the state agency should hear about that.”
Other things can hold up a claim, including if the employer filled out the employee’s information incorrectly, or if an employee went ahead and filed their own claim, not realizing their employer is supposed to do it for them.
Some companies are used to doing their payroll every other week, twice a month, or monthly, and they don’t realize they need to recertify their employees’ unemployment claims every week.
“With employer claims, some employers do their payroll twice a month, some do it weekly, some do it every other week, and in Georgia some are allowed to pay once a month,” said Amie Willis, an Atlanta-based attorney at Ogletree Deakins who specializes in employment law. “If they’re reducing [hours for] full-time employees or part-time employees, and they’re just working as needed, they have to have specific information at the end of each week in order to file for that past week. But if they don’t have access to that payroll information, that would prevent them from filing a claim immediately.”
Cartwright said the Georgia Department of Labor informed employers of the protocol to send laid-off and furloughed employee information to state officials, and has emailed out reminders for them to file weekly since.
“We sent out another one reminding them you need to make sure you’re doing this,” she told Vox. “We’re trying to take care of that, but it’s a better system for us, it’s a better system for employees.”
Confusion and missing payments for some workers
When Kayla, a part-time paraprofessional at a charter school in Georgia, worked her last day on March 13, she first held off on filing for unemployment because she wasn’t sure if she would be going back to work. But getting information from her employer proved to be difficult.
“I heard nothing from our corporate office about unemployment other than they would keep us updated,” she said.
About three weeks later, still having heard nothing, she filed for unemployment herself on April 2, and heard back a day later that she was approved. But the day after the Labor Department approved her claim, she got a notification from her employer that they had filed for employment on their employees’ behalf — without specifying whom.
When Kayla’s coworker got her first UI payment on April 9, Kayla had still gotten nothing. That’s when she called the Georgia Commissioner of Labor’s Office.
“When a representative from his office called, she looked at my account and said that she released payment,” Kayla said. “The confusion came when my employer filed on my behalf and I didn’t receive my benefits until two weeks after.” She got her first benefit on April 15, about a month after she was laid off, and said the state office was able to help her navigate next steps about claiming for subsequent weeks.
Woolf, the athletic trainer, also dealt with confusion about whether he or his employer was supposed to file after he first was furloughed. Woolf’s company initially told him and a group of his coworkers they should file for unemployment, which they did — only to be told by a representative from Labor that the employer was supposed to file for them.
He and his coworkers have had different experiences: Some people have gotten their payments but others are still waiting to receive anything. He falls somewhere in the middle, having gotten part of what he’s owed for benefits but not the full allotment.
“Everyone’s had varying degrees of failure,” Woolf told me. “There was really no understanding as to why this person has gotten this, this person has gotten that.”
Woolf resorted to contacting Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler over Twitter and found him to be responsive (Butler has spent a lot of time fielding individual requests from laid-off people on Twitter lately). Butler connected Woolf with an employee in his office named Kimberly who was able to call him directly.
“Everyone I know has gotten a call from Kimberly,” Woolf said. When he spoke to her, Woolf said, she informed him his employer hadn’t filed anything for him since March 28, which explained why he hadn’t been getting checks. Woolf tried to contact his employer, which has been difficult as well. Many seem confused about how to navigate the system, Woolf said.
“The big thing I hear from my friends and family is HR departments are completely unwilling to reach out and answer questions, and don’t have a basic level of [understanding],” he said.
Right now, Woolf says he counts himself as one of the lucky ones — he’s still able to be on his wife’s health insurance. He estimates his family has enough in savings to get through May, but he doesn’t know what the future holds after.
If his delayed back payments don’t come through by June, Woolf says it would be a “scary situation.”
As in many states, Georgia’s unemployment system is overwhelmed
Like many other states, Georgia’s state unemployment system was not prepared for the sheer volume of UI applications it received in a month.
“We have never seen this kind of volume before, obviously,” Cartwright, the DOL spokesperson, told Vox. Before the coronavirus hit, the department processed 5,000 claims per week on average. Last week, it processed 300,000 claims.
“During the 2008-2009 recession, we did a million claims in 2009,” Cartwright said. Now, “we did a million claims in a month.”
Georgia’s Labor Department has fewer than 1,000 employees to process the 1.1 million claims it’s gotten in the past month. That’s less than half the staffing capacity the department had in 2009, according to Cartwright. And Georgia is not alone in this. The staggering fallout of an economic crisis on a par with the Great Depression is running into many state programs that were underfunded and out of date to begin with.
“The key aspects of UI were weak going into this,” Andy Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told Vox recently. “The IT infrastructure was weak; most states hadn’t gotten off these ancient mainframes. The concern is they’ve never done anything with this type of volume.”
That was part of the reason the state issued the emergency rule to put the burden of filing on many employers — it was an attempt to speed things up. But it has also created confusion for some in desperate need of these benefits.
Woolf, for one, is grateful for the responses he’s gotten from the state Department of Labor, and he understands they’re up against a monumental task.
“It seems like they’re doing the best they can to help, but they’re so far behind and the system is so antiquated,” he said. “Them going person by person in the system. ... I don’t see how they’re ever really going to catch up.”