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Georgia unemployment benefits among briefest in nation

Photo by Heather Meadows

Photo by Heather Meadows

— A worker who loses a job after July, thanks to new state legislation to reduce hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to the federal government, will draw 14 to 20 weeks of checks, down from 26 weeks. The new sliding scale is based on the state unemployment rate. The lower the rate, the fewer the weeks of payments.

More than 190,000 Georgians stand to lose anywhere from $260 to $1,820 in benefits, the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates.

Legislators had to act because Georgia drained its unemployment trust fund. It gave unemployment tax holidays to businesses in the early 2000s, and then the recession hit, doubling the number of recipients. To keep sending out the average weekly $260 check, Georgia borrowed $761 million from the federal government, which is demanding payment.

The shared pain of cuts to benefits and increased contributions is expected to repay the loan, avoid federal charges and rebuild the state's unemployment trust fund to $1 billion in four years. Supporters and detractors agree the pain of paying the bill is shared but disagree over whether it is fairly shared.

A special federal program was implemented to continue paying benefits after state benefits run out, but those are scheduled to end in December.

In Georgia, 56,096 people were getting state benefits in March, and 99,815 were getting federal payments.

Georgia is not alone. Thirty states borrowed money to keep unemployment checks flowing during the recession. In September, the federal government will start charging $21 a year per employee, which will climb in succeeding years until the loans are repaid.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, using state Department of Labor numbers, estimates the changes will reduce benefits by $160 million next year and that increased taxes on employer's will cost $105 million.