SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Tens of thousands of Georgians lost their jobs during the pandemic and desperately looked to the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) for help.

While many received unemployment benefits, others did not. Now a class-action lawsuit may force GDOL to answer in court.

“The department is not doing its job,” says Emily Early from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of four plaintiffs.

The legal action against GDOL and the state of Georgia cites complaints about long delays and no communication from the department.

“I again cannot tell you how many people I’ve spoken to and how many emails I’ve received from people who just lost hope,” said Early.

The suit seeks the money that the unemployed say is owed in benefits and damages. Early expects others, maybe many others, to join the lawsuit.

“This is an issue that’s been ongoing, and yes, we do expect to receive lots of calls and have already begun receiving calls and emails in respect to requests to join the lawsuit or find out more information,” said Early, “Because this has been happening to so many people throughout this state for the last 15 months.”

“It has been absolutely heartbreaking. I actually have been in contact with one individual who was on the brink of threats to harm himself because of the financial devastation of the pandemic and the claims that both he and his wife have had pending with the Department of Labor for over a year,” she said.

The suit claims GDOL has failed to follow the law, which guarantees promptness and due process to people filing.

Many people who are turned down for benefits have the right to appeal. The suit cites information that says the average wait time for an appeal (hearing) should be about 30 days or one month, but that in Georgia, the average time to get a hearing has been 217 days or about seven months.

GDOL officials have said consistently that claims have to be thoroughly processed, and that takes trained employees. WSAV has also be told during the past year that literally millions of claims were processed.

“We don’t think GDOL is doing all that it can,” said Early. “From what we understand, staffing levels have not been substantially increased.”

She also wanted to make the point that in the past year, it’s not only the lower-income applicants that sought help from GDOL.

“We’ve heard from business owners, managers, and yes, lower-income wage workers. There are people all across the economic spectrum who have heard nothing from the Department of Labor or who are owed money or who have been waiting for an appeal for months,” said Early.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler issued a statement indicating his support of his department and condemned the legal action:

This is obviously another politically motivated lawsuit. Just like previous lawsuits, we expect to prove that this suit does not have merit. These groups believe that unemployment insurance should be paid to everyone who applies, regardless of their qualifications. The same groups should be more concerned with helping people go back to work in one of the hundreds of thousands of jobs currently available across the state of Georgia.