Georgia labor commissioner: ‘We’re waiting for Congress to take action on continuing federal pandemic payments’

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The coronavirus is not only affecting the health of individuals but the health of the economy nationwide and across Georgia.

The economy shrank last quarter by 33 percent — the worst hit since the 1940s — and initial unemployment claims were up nationwide last week.

In the Peach State, initial claims were down last week but the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) reported that up to $11 billion has been paid out in state and federal pandemic benefits since mid-March.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler says the state has had about 3 million claims filed. He says all are not valid but still all must be considered and processed.

Butler says they are watching action in the U.S. Senate concerning whether the federal $600 per week pandemic payment — which expires at the end of the month — is continued, or whether some other kind of pandemic payment is offered. One possibility being considered is offering 70 percent of a claimant’s salary.

“The biggest concern I have is the confusion it’s going to cause with claimants because it is a very confusing formula,” said Butler.

Butler told News 3 that if legislation “was passed today it would still have to be evaluated by the U.S. Department of Labor.”

“So right now, we’re mostly in a waiting pattern to see what Congress passes and then at that point (which I hope everybody really understands) if it’s something complicated or based on a formula then we’re going to have to wait until we get the go-ahead from the U.S Department of Labor on how they want us to administer it,” he said.

In terms of claims, the GDOL says 91 percent of all valid claims have been paid. Butler says local career centers remain closed to protect staff. He says the average age of his employees is about 54, based on the fact that a number of jobs require a level of experience that he says the pandemic showed us we can’t quickly “hire our way out of.”

Even with the effort to protect employees, he said one worker has died of COVID-19 and they have fought outbreaks at local facilities.’

“A few weeks ago, even with not allowing the public into our offices, we actually had seven different locations in one week that had to be temporarily closed because we had positive tests that showed up,” said Butler.

News 3 sent Butler’s office complaints from several viewers who said they have not been able to receive benefits since March or April. Butler said his staff is already looking into the complaints.

We spoke to one woman, Cynthia Knudsen who said she had received a phone call from GDOL. Knudsen said she had checked her bank account Thursday but “no money was there yet but she is hoping it will be any day now that issues with her claim appear to be resolved.”

Meanwhile, Butler says staff continues to work long hours to serve the public. He says the next issue will be what Congress does with any new pandemic payments.

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