Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner, Mark Butler

Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner, Mark Butler.

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Department of Labor

The Southern Poverty Law Center and an Atlanta-based law firm have filed a class action lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Labor and Commissioner Mark Butler over the long delays suffered by some out-of-work Georgians during the pandemic.

Four named and nine anonymous plaintiffs say the labor department violated the law by not acting promptly enough to process and pay workers during the unprecedented jobless crisis. They are asking for an injunction forcing the labor department to comply with state code’s demand for promptness as well as monetary damages.

“The pandemic created the largest unemployment crisis in generations, and throughout this trying time GDOL has refused to follow the law in providing help to people who desperately need it,” said Emily Early, senior supervising staff attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “State and federal law guarantee promptness and due process rights and GDOL has ignored those rights, as well as its duty to serve the public in an extreme time of need.”

Butler dismissed the suit as a political farce.

“This is obviously another politically motivated lawsuit,” he said in a statement. “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.”

In November, the department said it had cleared its backlog, though people filing claims have continued to report long waits.

But according to the lawsuit, in the last quarter of 2020, only 12.7% of Georgia claimants found out if they were qualified to receive benefits within 21 days, and that number was just 10% in the first quarter of 2020. The U.S. Department of Labor reports 80% of claimants receiving notice in that time frame is acceptable.

The suit says the average age of one type of appeal filed by unemployment seekers was greater than 256 days in the first part of the year, placing Georgia 49th in the nation by that measure, after West Virginia.

“The extreme delays in the unemployment application process are a result of policies and procedures within Defendants’ control,” the suit says.“For example, despite the alarming unemployment rates and numbers of applications for unemployment benefits in Georgia, the GDOL has employed half of the staff (only 1,066 in 2020), that it had during the Great Recession (2,219 in 2019).”

Between March 2020 and this month, the Georgia Department of Labor processed more than 4.8 million initial unemployment claims, more than during the ten years before the pandemic.

Employees at the labor department say they’ve been working around the clock to process claims as quickly as they can, often sacrificing their personal and family time to help those in need.

But many of the Georgians who filed those claims needed the money to support their families, but they said their emails and phone calls seeking information went unanswered.

Desperate, many of them reached out to lawmakers, who sought to punish Butler with new legislative oversight, a measure that received bipartisan support but was vetoed by Gov. Brian Kemp, who said the bill violated the state’s constitutional separation of powers.

Later this week, the state is set to pull out of a federal unemployment program providing an additional $300 to unemployment recipients, an idea Kemp and Butler say will help boost lagging employment numbers in the leisure and hospitality industry. But opponents say this will cut off an important lifeline to Georgians still reeling from the pandemic labor crisis.

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

The Georgia Department of Labor is one of GPB's financial supporters.