Ed. Note: Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, who came under heavy criticism from the Clayton County Legislative Delegation for not responding to claims seekers, announced last week that he would not seek reelection, citing his wife’s cancer diagnosis. The Clayton Crescent extensively covered the unemployment controversy.

by Dave Williams
Bureau Chief
Capitol Beat News Service

Shortcomings in the Georgia Department of Labor’s unemployment claims management and customer service systems contributed to significant delays in processing claims during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a state audit.

At the height of the pandemic, only 4% of calls to the agency were being answered due to limited phone system capacity, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts found in an audit released last week.

As a result, 37,400 initial payments of unemployment claims were made more than 120 days after initial eligibility.

“While the unprecedented volume of claims made some delays inevitable, the Georgia Department of Labor’s claims management and customer service systems were also factors,” the audit concluded.

Unemployment in Georgia skyrocketed from 3.5% to 12.5% in April 2020, when COVID-19 first took hold. Unemployment claims spiked at the same time to 716,000.

Delays in processing claims spurred a deluge of complaints from jobless Georgians to their representatives in the General Assembly, who turned up the heat on the labor department.

Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler responded that the agency wasn’t being given the resources to accommodate the unprecedented volume of claims.

The audit concluded the department’s claims processing requires substantial staff involvement, with limited automation.

The lack of familiarity with the process among the many first-time filers of unemployment claims also contributed to the delays. New federal programs, system controls to prevent fraud, and untimely certification of unemployment by some employers worsened the situation, according to the audit.

However, the department was partly to blame because so many claimants could not reach the agency for assistance, the audit found.

The department responded to the deluge of claims by diverting more of its staff into claims processing, encouraging overtime and hiring contractors and retirees.

The agency also expanded its dedicated customer service unit to 16 last April but did not hire contractors for customer service.

The audit recommends the labor department continue “planned improvements” and create a formal plan for dealing with unemployment claims during future recessions.

It suggested improvements should include increasing the use of automation in claims processing and finding ways to make the application process clearer.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams is Capitol Beat bureau chief.

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