Bureau Chief
Capitol Beat News Service

The Georgia Department of Labor has settled a lawsuit over the payment of unemployment claims during the pandemic.

An agreement the state agency reached with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) this week calls for improvements to the processing of jobless claims, subject to adequate state funding.

The SPLC filed a class-action suit against the labor department after a deluge of unemployment claims stemming from the pandemic flooded the agency, causing lengthy delays in processing and paying claims.

“This agreement is symbolic of the cooperation of both parties working together to create solutions for Georgians,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said.  

LISTEN: Trying to track down your AWOL unemployment check

The Real Story with Robin Kemp, August 5, 2020: Jada Thomas, Nya Longchamp, and Joyce Clay, who braved a thunderstorm outside the College Park office of the Georgia Department of Labor as they tried to track down months of COVID-19 unemployment checks that never arrived. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

“The enhancements in the agreement highlight the hard work and innovations that the department already had underway and some of the most recent completed plans for improved communication.” 

“The winners of this settlement are the people of Georgia,” added Kirsten Anderson, deputy legal director for the economic justice project at the SPLC.

“The COVID pandemic presented enormous and unprecedented challenges for the Georgia Department of Labor. The improvements in this settlement will upgrade the experience for claimants while keeping them better informed on what is happening with their claim.”  

The parties first appeared to have settled the case in July, but the labor department withdrew its consent to the agreement. The state attorney general’s office claimed the SPLC had violated the terms of the settlement by posting a press release about the new agreement unilaterally.

The settlement agreement required a joint press release, the agency asserted in withdrawing its consent.

Georgians who lost their jobs during the pandemic hit their representatives in the General Assembly with a barrage of complaints over delayed claims processing and payments.

Miffed lawmakers responded by passing a bill during last year’s legislative session creating the position of a chief labor officer within the labor department who would report directly to the governor.

But Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed the measure, arguing the powers it would have given the new position would have put it in conflict with the constitutional authority of Georgia’s elected commissioner of labor.

Butler defended the agency’s employees throughout the debate over the legislation. He said new federal programs created to deal with the pandemic forced the labor department to build six different systems from scratch within weeks to pay unemployment claims.

The commissioner praised the department’s staff this week for delivering more than $23 billion in jobless benefits to more than 2 million Georgians.

Both the labor department and the SPLC are calling on the legislature to reinstate an administrative fee the agency collects from employers to help pay for the planned improvements in claims processing. The fee is due to expire at the end of this year, which would result in a loss of $10 million to $20 million to the department.

To prevent future conflicts over press releases, both parties agreed to provide a courtesy copy to the other at least 24 hours before publishing any release pertaining to the lawsuit.

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

Dave Williams

Dave Williams is Capitol Beat bureau chief.

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