by Robin Kemp
UPDATE 6:15 p.m. 8/5: Rep. Kim Schofield says people can call her office at (404) 656-0220 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with their unemployment check issues.
UPDATE 7:51 p.m.: Clarifies that Burnough says state lawmakers have not yet met with Commissioner Butler and that Butler did not respond to request for comment. Adds federal elected officials’ links.
UPDATE 8:43 p.m.: Clarifies that employers pay unemployment insurance tax
As members of Congress haggle over whether to continue paying COVID-19 supplemental benefits, many Americans–including people right here in Clayton County–have yet to see a penny of the earned unemployment insurance benefits that were taken out of their paychecks each week.
State elected officials want to know why.
This week, members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation have been holding press conferences outside various Georgia unemployment offices around metro Atlanta in an attempt to draw attention to the issue.
On Monday, they started at the Clayton County office.
Dozens of people, some in lawnchairs, have been waiting outside the College Park Georgia DOL office on Phoenix Boulevard, wanting to know why, five months into the crisis, they have not gotten the checks that are rightfully theirs. Many face eviction from their apartments or homes. Some have had their cars repossessed.
Burnough said state lawmakers have not yet met with Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler, who did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
In March, the Valdosta Daily Times reported, Butler “issued an emergency ruling…stating employers are mandated to electronically file partial claims on behalf of their employees whenever it is necessary to temporarily lay workers off.”
Butler was quoted as saying, “We are partnering with the governor’s office and our federal and state authorities to make sure we are able to get the citizens of Georgia paid. We are working as an agency to provide innovative solutions to meet the needs of our customers, even when information is changing every day.”
Rep. Sandra Scott and others point out that Butler, like them, is an elected official, and urged people to pay attention to how they vote.
Rep. Kim Schofield told WSB’s Tyisha Fernandez, “We’ve heard the same things regurgitated over and over about the problems. People need solutions. It’s the first of the month. You have people getting ready to face evictions. People’s water and utilities are going to be disconnected and right now we’re trying to stabilize homes for virtual learning.”
“What’s the difference between the Department of Labor’s customer service and the cable company’s customer service? You can actually speak to someone at the cable company.”— Christopher Clements, who spent months trying to change his unemployment benefits PIN
The Clayton Crescent has asked both Butler and U.S Rep. David Scott (D-13) for comment on the department’s disbursement of state and federal unemployment funds and will update with any response. The office of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-5), who championed the poor, is referring constituents to U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler until his seat is filled.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday, “As we come together here in the Capitol, among the American people are many millions of children who are food insecure, many families who are concerned about being evicted, tens of millions of people who are on unemployment insurance. We have to come to an agreement that meets the needs of the American people. That is the standard. This is an unusual negotiation, as I’ve said before, because people are dying.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, ““Wherever this thing settles between the president of the United States and his team, that have to sign it into law, and the Democrat not insignificant minority in the Senate and majority in the House, is something I’m prepared to support even if I have some problems with certain parts of it.” He added that Senate Republicans could not agree on unemployment insurance payments.
On Wednesday, Rep. Sandra Scott streamed Facebook Live video from Gwinnett County’s unemployment office, where Rep. Jasmine Clark of Lilburn read an e-mail from constituent Christopher Clements to the crowd gathered outside.
“‘What’s the difference between the Department of Labor’s customer service and the cable company’s customer service? You can actually speak to someone at the cable company. It took one-third of a year, a Twitter account, hundreds of unanswered phone calls, dozens of unanswered e-mails, and my state representative in order to reset a four-digit personal identification number.'”
“That’s all he needed,” Clark told the crowd. “He needed his PIN reset.”
Tammy (not her real name), who lives in Riverdale and is the mother of a 9-month-old baby who was born prematurely, has an eviction notice from the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office. She said she has been in touch with State Reps. Rhonda Burnough and Sandra Scott by e-mail and text.
“She (Scott) said they were working with the Department of Labor to try and get claims processed,” Tammy said.
But Tammy and her young son are running out of time.
“I received a paper from the sheriff’s office,” she said on Aug. 5. “I got another letter last night saying the August rent was $1,047. They do warrants on the 10th. If there’s a warrant, it’s $1,384.”
In other words, if Tammy can’t come up with the rent before Aug. 10, she will be charged another $335–a $200 warrant fee and a $135 late fee–the cost of getting kicked out on the street.
Tammy says she has gotten some help from the Clayton County Community Services Authority in the past — $400 towards her electric bill — and that she’s going to see if they can help her with the rent.
Whether that money comes in time for Tammy and her son remains to be seen.
President Donald Trump told reporters Monday that he would consider an executive order to halt evictions and that he wanted to get unemployed people “a lot” of money. He did not say how he would do that. CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk wrote, “It is unclear what powers Trump has to stop evictions or extend unemployment insurance by executive action.”
Clark said, “Since this pandemic has happened, I have received hundreds of e-mails from people who are just saying, ‘I need the money that you say I am approved for.’ They are not asking for any type of handout. They are asking for the money that they paid into, at every single paycheck, with the guarantee that when things went wrong and they lost their employment for a short amount of time, they will be able to get that money back, that they will be able to get payment. “
Unemployment benefits are paid either as direct deposits to recipients’ bank accounts or to prepaid debit cards issued by Georgia DOL. (Users have to go online to specify how they would like to receive payments.)
Conduent Inc., a corporation that issues unemployment and other benefits on behalf of government entitites and that has offices in metro Atlanta, issues those debit cards in Georgia. According to an Aug. 3 press release on the company’s website, “Combined with other related services, including more than 40 percent of the nation’s payments under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Conduent is now delivering EBT card benefits to nearly 16 million recipients across the country. This represents an approximate 26 percent increase since April.”
While Conduent, which reported $4.47 billion in revenues in 2019, is listed among the state’s contractors, no contract is available for viewing online on the Georgia Department of Administrative Services’ purchasing website. Conduent says it is helping ten states “in providing critical payments to state-approved recipients of unemployment benefits — an area of unprecedented need amid the COVID-19 crisis. Nationally, the company is currently issuing unemployment benefit payments to approximately 1.5 million recipients, about 19 times more than compared with the end of 2019.”
The Clayton Crescent has asked Conduent to confirm whether it still has a contract with the state of Georgia and whether Conduent or Georgia DOL is responsible for sending out people’s payments.
Back at the Clayton County DOL office on Phoenix Boulevard, people continued to drive up, hoping someone could help them get their checks. Even as a thunderstorm broke overhead, people stood in the pouring rain, telling their stories.
Jada Thomas was trying to help her daughter, Nya Longchamp, get her benefits. Longchamp is starting her biology degree at Georgia State this fall. Neither she nor her boyfriend, both of whom worked for Chick-Fil-A, have received unemployment benefits.
Longchamp, who wants to go into dentistry and orthodonty, said she’s had to rely on her mother this summer and had been hoping to put some of her unemployment money towards school, “but that never happened.”
Thomas’ other two children, who are at SCAD and Georgia State, got their checks. Longchamp has been looking for a job all summer, “but has not found the luck to find anything decent so she can go back to work.”
She said she thought about going back to her old job, but added there had a COVID-19 outbreak and that she did not want to expose her mother, who is at increased health risk, to the disease.
Joyce Clay’s hours were cut at Delta Global Services, which is a cleaning company that services Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“I have a house note, car note, and utilities, and you know, who wants to defer your payment plan? And the bills are steadily–and you’ve got to make those payments regardless.”
Clay has an older son and husband, “but it’s not enough for all these bills. He has a truck payment, and can you imagine?”
They and others had pulled up to the office Wednesday afternoon because no one has answered their calls and letters:
They had some choice words for those who accuse people on unemployment of being lazy and just wanting a check.
“It’s easy to say that if they’re not in that situation,” Clay said. “No, not everybody is just waiting to get a check. It’s like the young lady said. Sometimes their job, the duties are not conducive to their health issues and they want to look out for themselves. I mean, you only have one life.”
Thomas noted that some people are indeed getting paid: “They didn’t say that when they gave the billionaires they didn’t even deserve.”
“So true,” Clay chimed in.
“They gave the billionaires the money,” Thomas fumed. “They’re not in danger. Their companies are not in danger. And they wasn’t even required to give the money back. But the poor people who actually pay taxes, and do all the work, and do all the manual labor, are considered lazy for finally getting the money that they pay into. This is not free money. This is something that we pay into.”
Strictly speaking, employers pay unemployment taxes. Employees who are eligible for benefits–those who are laid off or otherwise lose work through no fault of their own–are entitled to a percentage of their previous year’s weekly earnings. However, those dollars are the ones that are supposed to pay the bills during the COVID-19 crisis.
Some people have resorted to sticking notes in the door of the locked office, which is closed to the public due to COVID-19.
A security guard inside rapped on the glass as The Clayton Crescent took photos of the notes. “Tell them they can’t leave those notes,” he said, not unkindly. “That’s not an approved method of contact.”
“They’re not asking for anything unreasonable,” Clark said of those waiting on their unemployment benefits. “These are not people who are not trying to work. These are people who want to pay their bills, pay their rent, pay their utilities, take care of their children, feed, feed their households–that is what these people are asking for.”
One of those people is R.F. of Jonesboro, who took a leave of absence for health reasons because her doctor said she is at increased risk for catching COVID-19.
“Thank God they were willing to allow me to do so,” she said in an e-mail to The Clayton Crescent. “I am due to go back to work at the end of September and looking at the (COVID-19) numbers continuing to stay high, I wonder if they will be willing to extend my leave or let me go.”
She is getting her unemployment insurance payment, “but losing the extra $600 will make things difficult. Since I have to have groceries delivered the budget for food and household supplies have increased.”
“I was fortunate to have leave accumulated on my job and did not have to apply for unemployment right away,” she added. “This, I am sure, is what aided me in the smooth transition to unemployment, being able to wait long enough for the DOL to work out some kinks in the system.”
Even so, it took three weeks for her to get her unemployment benefits and COVID-19 supplement.
“This is the first week without the added $600 benefit,” R.F. said. “My amount this week is a little more than half of what I was making on my job.”
“No one seems to be talking about those of us not working due to being High Risk,” R.F. said. “It’s not a matter of my choosing to remain home because I can make more at home. The prospect of going back to work terrifies me due to knowing I would in all probability die if I became positive. I am sure there are many more like me living in Clayton County. They too live in the shadow and fear of the government making a political decision to ‘release’ High Risk people from stay at home orders and suddenly we lose even the basic unemployment coverage, as well. If that happens, how many of us will be forced to ignore our doctor’s advice and return to a reality where half the people refuse to wear a mask? Please give us a voice that we so desperately need to have heard.”
Thomas says she just wants what is already hers.
“This is our money,” she said, “but they’re treating it like we’re trying to steal it, we’re trying to get something from them, and the only people that always get something for free is the rich people.”
In the interest of transparency, this reporter, like many others around the country, was laid off in April due to COVID-19. Her weekly COVID-19 emergency aid was $504. She did not receive the federal $1,200 stimulus check. Her weekly unemployment insurance payment is $302. She supports herself and her permanently disabled partner, who relies on food stamps. During the pandemic, she started and continues to run this website singlehandedly at her own expense. She does not get paid to provide this community service, which she is working to turn into a self-sustaining nonprofit news organization.
Clayton County Office, Georgia Department of Labor https://dol.georgia.gov/locations/clayton-county
Georgia Landlord-Tenant Handbook http://www.consumer.ga.gov/uploads/pdf/GA_Landlord_Tenant_Handbook_2017.pdf
Clayton County Community Services Authority, Inc. https://www.claytoncountycsa.org/
Find your state representative http://www.house.ga.gov/mediaServices/en-US/FindYourLawmaker.aspx
Find your state senator http://www.senate.ga.gov/senators/en-US/FindyourLegislator.aspx
Learn more about how unemployment insurance works from The Brookings Institution https://brook.gs/3i4WsZQ