Georgia Department of Labor in Atlanta

Georgia Department of Labor staff have cleared the massive backlog of unemployment claims, but joblessness is still higher than average.

Credit: John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Eight months after the pandemic shutdown caused unemployment claims to hit record highs, the Georgia Department of Labor is finally processing unemployment claims at pre-COVID-19 rates.

The department, which processed more than 4 million regular unemployment claims and disbursed more than $15.7 billion in benefits since March, announced that it had caught up with its application queue Thursday, but some applicants could still face frustrating waits.

“Any delays you are currently hearing regarding claims are not related to processing,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said Thursday. “We are processing claims at pre-COVID rates. The claims that are taking a while are the ones where there is a disagreement about the separation reason between the employer and employee. This is similar to a court case traveling through the judicial system and appeals can be escalated all the way to the superior court. However, this can take time.”

An unemployment claim filed today could be processed in under a week, the department said. That’s a big improvement over the long delays last spring that left displaced workers falling behind on rent while they waited to hear if their benefits were processed.

Georgia’s unemployment rate is now at 6.4%, much better than the 12% peak in April when the state shut down to contain the spread of COVID-19 but about double the rate at the beginning of the year.

Still, time could be running out for gig workers and other recipients of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the CARES Act initiative that provided benefits to displaced workers who are not usually eligible. The program came with a 39-week limit and is set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress extends the assistance. For up to 40,000 workers filing these claims, these benefits have already stopped or will be exhausted in the next few weeks, according to the state labor department.

And despite catching up with the application backlog, the department is continuing to hire workers to assist with claims as unemployment remains historically high in Georgia.

Another 23,126 Georgians filed for initial unemployment benefits last week, down from 37,253 the week before, but still significantly higher than before the pandemic. Only 4,409 Georgians filed initial claims the week ending March 7.

The number of people seeking work is also down since the onset of the pandemic. Only 59.4% of Georgians were employed or seeking work in September, down from 62.4% in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate fell 1% to 6.9% in October, after setting a record of 14.7% in April. Unemployment was at 3.6% at the start of the year.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.