Virus Outbreak Unemployment

A sign posted on the locked doors of a Georgia Department of Labor office Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Norcross, Ga., advises workers are working remotely and are not available for in-person consultation because of coronavirus concerns. Content Exchange

Six unemployed Georgians are suing the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) for its failure to process their unemployment claims.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia, Lisa English was a contracted bookkeeper for a retail company in Fulton County. She was laid off for eight weeks because of the public health shutdowns and applied for unemployment benefits.

English said she spoke to a GDOL representative who wanted to confirm her status as a contracted worker, but she has not heard or received anything else from the state agency since late March.

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A few months later, English was laid off permanently. As a result, English lost her home and the ability to regain custody of her son, who has special needs. She now lives with a friend in Rockdale County and picks up some bookkeeping gigs now and then.

"Right now, the biggest thing is getting my son back," English said. "I had sent him to Florida to live with his dad for medical reasons. He had been diagnosed with mild autism and needed speech therapy and such, that only his dad's insurance would cover in-state."

English said after countless calls to GDOL, she sought legal help from the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP).

The GLSP, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society Inc. and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against GDOL and its commissioner Mark Butler on Tuesday. They are asking a Fulton County Superior Court judge to order the state agency to pay and process the unemployed workers' claims in a "timely" manner, according to the law.

"Georgia law mandates that [GDOL] promptly determine eligibility, pay unemployment insurance claims, and schedule appeal hearings," the lawsuit states.

Along with English, three of the other plaintiffs have been waiting for months to find out whether they qualify for the benefits.

GDOL approved Macon resident Sulatha Blount's application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) in March, but she has yet to receive a payment, attorneys said. In August, a GDOL employee asked Blount to send in a new copy of her driver's license since it had expired by the time the agency got around to her claim. Attorneys said Blount uploaded the license the same day, but she has not heard from the GDOL since.

Another plaintiff, Danielle Robitshek, quit her job as a dog groomer in June after her former employer refused to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols with customers. She applied for PUA but was denied. Robitshek appealed the decision in September, and she is now suing the GDOL for a hearing.

The attorneys asked the court to order the GDOL to respond to the plaintiffs' unemployment claims within five to 30 days.

GDOL spokesperson Kersha Cartwright said the department had not received an official legal document as of Wednesday afternoon and could not "comment on its content." Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit Tuesday and said they expect it to be accepted by the court clerk Wednesday.

The GDOL and Butler have received mounting pressure to complete unprocessed claims. Members of the House Democratic Caucus Subcommittee on COVID-19 filed a federal complaint and called for an investigation into the unemployment process. They said the GDOL violated federal law, which requires unemployment benefits to be paid within 21 days to those who qualify.

Butler said last month most of the unprocessed claims need another level of review to determine whether a worker is eligible. More than 400,000 claimants have reported working but are not showing enough wages to establish an unemployment claim, and more than 31,000 claims have been flagged for fraud, Butler said.

The GDOL has received a record number of unemployment claims because of the pandemic. The agency has processed 4.2 million claims since the week ending March 21, which is more than the last nine years combined.

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