ATLANTA — The Georgia Department of Labor is facing an impossible situation, Commissioner Mark Butler said, calling it “unfathomable.”

About 1,000 employees are trying to field upward of 80,000 calls a day — working 10 to 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, to meet the demand, he said.

Since March 14, the department has processed more than 861,000 unemployment claims.

The coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. that has sickened more than 600,000 people and killed close to 25,000, has put millions out of work. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that over the last four weeks, 22 million Americans filed for unemployment.

“We have compacted the worst year of the recession in less than four weeks,” Butler told CNHI.

The mass filings have left state labor departments attempting to keep up with claims while scrambling to institute new policies signed into law under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Per new provisions in the federal act, a surge of even new unemployment filings was added this week after the state began accepting claims from self-employed and gig workers.

State officials and policy experts agree: the system was not designed to support this kind of demand.

No comparison

Over the course of last month, Georgia’s unemployment rate rose by one percent to 4.2%, according to the department of labor, the largest one-month increase ever on record.

Since mid-March, the department has paid out $509 million in state and federal benefits. Last week alone, 290,600 Georgians received unemployment payments — two times the amount of people who received benefits throughout the entirety of last year.

“We’re setting the bar for everything else to be compared to in the future,” Butler said. “This is a standalone situation that there is no comparison to.”

Across the state, residents struggling to file for unemployment benefits have reported dropped calls and web pages that won’t load.

But if the department added 1,000 more phone lines and tripled its staff, he said, it still wouldn’t be enough.

The commissioner worries how long that kind of demand can be sustained — as he tries to curb staff burnout. Department employees who have never filed claims are being taught on the fly and even human resources staff are at a loss for how to keep up with paperwork that needs processing.

“The big worry is how much longer can this go on,” he told CNHI. “How long can the staff work under this type of stress?”

State departments across the country, Butler said, weren’t prepared for something like this.

Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst at Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the unemployment insurance system is simply not set up to handle an event like the coronavirus pandemic.

“The system is just not designed to go much farther than it’s already going which is a challenge right now,” he told CNHI. “What we’ll have to do further down the line either at the state or the federal level is reimagine what an unemployment insurance is supposed to look like and who it’s supposed to serve. Because it’s exposing all new kinds of new vulnerabilities — this virus is — in our safety net.”

The number of unemployment filings the country is seeing now, he said, “dwarf” the unemployment numbers the U.S. saw more than a decade ago.

“They kind of threw us to the wolves”

The CARES Act passed by Congress extended unemployment benefits to Americans for an additional 13 weeks and eased filing requirements by allowing self-employed and gig workers a pathway to support. It also added more dollars to payouts.

The Georgia Department of Labor this week began paying the extra $600-per-person federal supplement to anyone receiving unemployment benefits. The same relief package included a payment of up to $1,200 for most Americans which is being distributed through the IRS.

Georgians who work in food service, hospitality, health care, social work and trade jobs have filed the most, according to the department.

But while most of the additional benefits are coming from federal dollars, Butler said, the state departments are left creating new systems to process the new types of claims.

“You’ve got the federal government — Congress — in the CARES Act, passing a lot of these new programs. Some of which have never ever been done before,” he said. “They threw those in our lap and now we’ve got to create capacity in systems that didn’t exist before. And they want us to do it in a few weeks.”

Butler said changes which were portrayed as simple add-ons, are not. To verify self-employed and gig workers incomes, states are left building new systems from scratch that include contacting the Department of Revenue to sign-off on listed earnings — a crucial step in ruling out fraud.

“A lot of the stuff is an extremely heavy lift over a very short period of time,” he said. “In today’s world where you can order something online and show up on your doorstep tomorrow, everybody thinks that’s how everything should work.”

Early into the pandemic, state officials instituted policies that luckily helped lighten the load for the department of labor, Butler said.

“It’s almost an impossible situation,” he said. “But we’re doing it every day. We’re working on it every day.”

An emergency ruling instituted in mid-March by Butler with the support of Gov. Brian Kemp, mandates that employers file patron claims on behalf of their employees whenever there are temporary layoffs.

Camardelle agreed without the changes the department had made so far, there was no way it could have absorbed even a portion of the backlog it had.

The state also extended unemployment benefits for Georgians from 14 to 26 weeks — a total of 39 weeks of benefits including federal support.

Camardelle said during the recession, unemployment benefits were extended up to 99 weeks but Georgia’s extension to 26 weeks was a big step for the state.

“That’s a huge change and we’re really glad to see that,” he said. “Now, the caveat here is that we don’t know if that is a permanent change. And we are seeing the potential of this downturn dragged into 2021.”

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