A possible lapse in extra unemployment benefits from the federal government at the end of the month has left several Forsyth County residents wondering how they are going to pay rent, utilities and bills as benefits shrink to a fraction of what they need.
The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program, which provides an extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance benefits, will end after Friday, July 31, unless the U.S. government agrees on a plan to either amend or extend the program.
Georgia Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said that right now, the department is left waiting on federal lawmakers to make a decision and for what is to come next for the FPUC program.
“If they extend it, that’s not going to be as big of a deal for us to just extend those benefits, but if they change it in any way, shape or form, we’re going to have to reprogram some things on our end,” Cartwright said. “There is not a whole lot that we can communicate to claimants until we know what the plan is.”
Cartwright said that the department had requested prior notice if there are any changes to the program to give the staff extra time to be able to implement those changes.
“When they make a decision, they expect us to implement it overnight, which is super challenging for us,” Cartwright said. “We do everything internally, so our teams are stretched thin and are asked to perform miracles. Any kind of headway — any kind of leeway that we can get, would be helpful, and I’m not sure we’re going to get that.”
Cartwright explained that if the federal government does not make a decision soon on whether or not to extend or change the FPUC program, then there will be a lapse in those supplemental payments to claimants. Cartwright said that even if the FPUC ends, then claimants, whether they are receiving benefits through unemployment insurance or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, will still receive their regular benefits.
Without the FPUC, however, claimants could see a significant drop in their weekly payments.
Forsyth County resident Greg McCain was laid off from his job in May, and he has been relying on unemployment benefits ever since as he works to find another job. Without the added $600 per week in supplemental federal benefits, McCain will only be earning around $200 per week in unemployment.
Without the FPUC program in place, McCain is not sure how he will continue to support himself and his family, who are also struggling financially during the pandemic.
“It feels like I’ve been applying [for work] nonstop,” McCain said. “I just can’t — I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to come up with something soon.”
Some have also worried that the end of the FPUC program could lead to businesses in the area suffering as more residents will not have extra money to spend.
Lance White, the owner of Lance’s Jewelry on Market Place Boulevard in Cumming, said extra unemployment benefits and the original $1,200 stimulus check, which many received in April, has helped him in opening his business back up during the pandemic.
White closed his business for the first time in 30 years back in March, and when he opened the store back up in April, he was worried about getting customers back in the door. With so many facing unemployment and other financial struggles, he figured no one would have the money to buy luxury items such as jewelry.
With a little bit of extra money, White said that customers felt comfortable splurging on restorations and even new jewelry, which is part of the reason he said he found success in reopening.
“Fortunately, they did,” White said. “A lot of customers started coming in because they had just gotten their stimulus checks.”
Looking forward, Cartwright said that it is hard to say whether or not the FPUC program needs a change right now as lawmakers are still working to reach an agreement. While many have searched for other employment or eagerly waited on a call back from their employer about their work situation, Cartwright said some others are refusing to go back to work as they are earning more than their usual salary on the added unemployment benefits.
“We’ve had a lot of employers that have been very concerned and challenged with getting employees to return to work, so that is a concern of ours as well,” Cartwright said. “Certainly, the end goal is to get everybody back to work, and this supplement is really just to bridge that gap. So what we’d like to do is be able to support those individuals financially long enough to get them back into employment, so if that supplement is not encouraging them to get back to employment, that is an issue.”
While the GDOL is receiving more and more reports of employees choosing not to come back to work, the department is still processing claims and getting payments out to those who need them. There are still many in Georgia and Forsyth County who have not received any payment months after filing.
Cartwright said that, for those who are eligible for the $600 per week but do not start receiving their unemployment insurance payments before the end of July, they plan to go back and still give claimants the full benefit and supplemental payment amount whether or not the program ends.
At this point, Forsyth County resident Chen Mergatroid said that she is trying to move on without unemployment benefits. Mergatroid ran her own personal cleaning service before the pandemic hit, but in March, her business dropped. She had to find and apply for other benefits before she could apply for the PUA program with the GDOL later on in April. She said that she still has not received any payments.
“I could never get through to the unemployment office,” Mergatroid said. “I have given up on it.”
Mergatriod said that, right now, she is finding construction and writing work anywhere she can, and she is taking an adjuster course so that she can hopefully find work from home with an insurance company.
Many others in Forsyth County have reported that they are still having trouble with getting in touch with anyone from the GDOL and local unemployment offices.
Lisa Palak, who lost work as a freelance interpreter when schools closed earlier this year, said that she received payments from the department. When she started working again late in April, however, she could not figure out what to do.
“I had a hard time contacting [unemployment insurance] to stop those benefits because I did not want to owe them an overpayment,” Palak said. “They have a mess to deal with I’m sure, but I can’t come out of this in debt.”
Cartwright said that residents should have an easier time getting in touch with the GDOL for help and advice with long-term or temporary employment as they come up on the end of the FCUP program in the next week.
Georgia residents can also find extra help looking for work online through GDOL’s Employ Georgia website. According to the website, there were more than 100,000 jobs available in Georgia as of Friday, July 24.
For updates on the FCUP program and any extra resources available for those looking for employment, visit the GDOL’s website or follow the GDOL’s Facebook page.
The GDOL also provided the Forsyth County News with a list of more than 200 jobs available in the Forsyth County area. Jobs in the area can also be found through employgeorgia.com.