Many in Forsyth County and across Georgia are still waiting on unemployment insurance payments months after filing while Georgia Department of Labor staff are forced to manually check incoming claims and applications.
A large number of those still waiting on unemployment checks are self-employed or contract workers who were originally ineligible for unemployment benefits when they first started to miss out on work in early March.
Later, the U.S. Department of Labor created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, allowing those that are typically not eligible for benefits the opportunity to file a claim. These individuals include those who are self-employed, gig workers, 1099 independent contractors, church employees, non-profit employees, and others with limited work history.
As citizens and GDOL employees both are navigating the new PUA program and many are still unable to get in touch with local GDOL offices for help, however, there has been plenty of confusion that has led to a much slower filing process.
Forsyth County resident Melissa Williams, the owner of a local lawn care company that has since dropped in business, said that she was also confused about the process when she filed a claim and got a response back the same day stating that she did not have enough wages to establish a valid claim.
“It seems to be an auto response, but it makes no sense because we have six straight years of employment, which ended on March 28,” Williams said.
She never received a response back when she tried calling the department to ask about the message, but she finally found her answer when she turned to social media to ask other residents for advice.
Originally, Williams said she was going to file an appeal to ask the department to look at her claim again, but other residents let her know that if she didn’t qualify for state benefits, she needed to fill out a PUA application for federal help. She was able to fill out the application that same day.
Even for residents like Chen Mergatroid, however, who have applied through the PUA program, the process has been a challenge.
Mergatroid ran her own cleaning service where she said most of her customers were elderly and they simply needed extra help at home.
“At the shut-in, everyone stopped having anyone in their homes,” Mergatroid said. “I haven't been able to find a job since.”
She has been out of work since March, and even after filling out a PUA application as soon as she could, Mergatroid said that she has not gotten any payments yet. The GDOL recently reached back out to her for more information about an employer that was not provided in the answers given on the application.
GDOL spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said that incomplete information and confusing application questions have been the main issue leading to a slower process of the GDOL getting payments out to those who may need them.
With the new program and application, Cartwright said that the questions can be a little “tricky,” causing many applicants to provide written-out explanations that cannot be automatically filed. This means that GDOL staff members are having to go in and individually look at the applications to process them or find out what other information is needed.
“So maybe if people better understand the questions and exactly what information we’re looking for, then that would help them answer the questions and auto process those claims for payment,” Cartwright said.
Cartwright said that when they started noticing the issue, she created a tutorial on the PUA application for residents to follow and make sure they are filling out the application in a way so that it can be automatically processed, and they can receive payment as soon as possible.
The GDOL has also noticed a drop in their volume of calls recently, so Cartwright said that they are now able to answer more calls coming in. She said she encourages anyone still needing help or looking for information to keep calling and leaving messages as the GDOL is working every day to try to process claims and get back in touch with those who have reached out.
Cartwright even said that if a local GDOL office is not responding to calls, then residents can call other offices throughout Georgia. Any GDOL office can help get information to people about their claims.
Forsyth County resident Robin Mann noted that she has been worried, however, about those in the community in drastically different situations — those who have not received benefits since first filing in March and those who are receiving benefits that they do not need or are not eligible for. Especially with the extra $600 weekly federal payment, Mann feels guilty that she is receiving so much on unemployment since she was laid off from her job in March while others have not seen any payments at all.
“Some of the issues that we’re seeing from those claims that were from March — they have issues associated with them,” Cartwright said. “They’re legitimate issues like they’re having to verify their identity. So that’s part of the process that we have set up for fraud purposes. We want to make sure that you are who you say you are, and that we’re paying the right person, and that you’re eligible for benefits.”
Cartwright said that the GDOL has set up an online resource for those in Georgia to report possible cases of unemployment insurance fraud. The GDOL is used to dealing with fraud, but Cartwright said the agency is seeing more and more cases with a significantly larger number of claims. Right now, Cartwright said that the GDOL is seeing around $1.5 million in fraud charges — with most of them being unintentional.
Many cases involve someone who may have had an employer that they were working for part-time file a claim on their behalf even though that person was still working full-time for another employer. In these cases, Cartwright said that it is unintentional unemployment insurance fraud, and the person will not be charged or face any penalties in these situations.
Meanwhile, the fraud department is keeping track of payments, and the GDOL will eventually ask for those that received extra payment or received benefits when they were not eligible to pay that money back to the department.
“We have a lot of cross checks that will be done, and if we have overpaid you in any way, shape or form, we’re going to ask for that money back,” Cartwright said. “And we’re not out to get anybody. We’re just out to make sure that we are taking care of the agency and we are responsibly issuing payments on behalf of the state or the federal government.”
For now, however, the GDOL is focused mainly on getting claims processed, getting payments out to those who need them and making sure those who are confused or who have never filed before are informed on what they need to do so that no one else is left waiting.