ATLANTA — Initial unemployment claims in Georgia fell below 100,000 last week for the fifth week in a row, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.
For the week ending Aug. 22, 56,768 jobless Georgians filed first-time unemployment claims, down 1,331 from the previous week.
Since March 21, the labor department has processed more than 3.5 million initial unemployment claims, more than during the last eight years combined.
In the latest development, the agency has begun creating a system to handle claims filed under the new federal Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program, which will replace an initiative that had been providing unemployed workers $600 per week until it expired at the end of last month.
Certification requirements for the LWA are different than those for the earlier program, which will require the labor department to develop a new computer system to administer payments, a process the agency anticipates will take three to four weeks.
“We are working as quickly as possible to build an application to meet the new … guidelines to process these weekly supplements,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday. “I am thankful we have an IT and (Unemployment Insurance) team that is able to interpret extensive federal guidelines and develop a system that will support the specifications these systems demand.”
The new program will provide weekly supplements of $300 to unemployed Georgians. Congress failed to reach agreement on legislation renewing the earlier program at the $600 level before it expired, prompting President Donald Trump to announce the LWA earlier this month, to be funded with up to $44 billion drawn from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
However, the LWA initially is providing benefits for just three weeks. After that, states must reapply weekly for more funding.
Democrats in the Georgia House of Representatives complained this week that the state’s backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims is unacceptable and called on Gov. Brian Kemp to boost staffing at the labor department to speed up the processing of claims.
But Butler said simply hiring temporary workers lacking experience in the complexities of handling unemployment claims wouldn’t solve the problem.
“Our big issue is not processing claims,” Butler said Thursday. “Besides fraud, it’s dealing with appeals and redeterminations. … You cannot program a computer to do that. It takes a very experienced, well-trained (Department of Labor) person.”
To combat a huge increase in fraud that has accompanied the exponential growth in claims, the labor department is trotting out a new tool. The department has formed a partnership with the nationally recognized program ID.me to provide a complete online verification program. ID.me is free for claimants to identify themselves, including a video chat with trained staff members.
“This money is taxpayers’ money,” Butler said. “It’s our job to protect this money. … We are working with state and federal law enforcement to go after these cases. We’re hoping to see some arrests and stop this.”
Since March 21, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for the most first-time unemployment claims, with 846,192 claims filed. The health-care and social assistance sector is next with 418,313 claims, followed by retail trade with 383,556.
More than 136,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume and assisting with other reemployment needs.