FILE - GA Mark Butler 7-18-2019

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

(The Center Square) – A group of Georgia Democrats says a portal meant to increase transparency in the state's handling of unemployment claims will exacerbate workers' frustrations with the program and transfers the burden to lawmakers.

Lawmakers are poised to participate in a pilot program that allows them access to unemployment claims, but to get access to the information, they must agree to a confidentiality agreement that Democrats say could stifle their efforts to help unemployed constituents facing benefit delays.

"The labor commissioner and his department are placing the unemployment crisis on legislators," House Minority Leader Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, said. "By signing the Legislator Portal Access agreement form, legislators will be forced into this unfortunate catastrophe. Instead of dealing with this crisis, the commissioner continues to avoid the necessary steps to support Georgians facing financial hardships."

Democrats have been pressuring Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) Commissioner Mark Butler to reform the state's unemployment payment process after receiving complaints of jobless benefit payment delays. Some workers have complained about waiting months to receive their benefits or to get a response from GDOL. While GDOL received an unprecedented number of claims during the pandemic because of business closures and restrictions, it also received an influx of fraudulent claims, creating a backlog for the agency.

Democrats have called for a federal review, state investigation and audit of the agency's handling of the claims. Butler said the Democrats' rally against him is politically motivated.

The GDOL created the Legislative Portal to allow lawmakers and their staff to review claim information once they get authorization from the constituent. Legislators are now urging the GDOL to pause the launch of the pilot program and revise its terms of use.

The group of Democrats says the agreement limits what data they can disclose to the public and other state agencies. Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, sent a three-page letter to Butler on Thursday, slamming the agreement. She refuses to participate in the pilot program.

"The main reasons for my opposition to this pilot involve the fact that this agreement will limit/silence the voice of the legislators and create criminal liability for the legislators and their staff," Scott wrote.

GDOL spokesperson Kersha Cartwright said federal and state guidelines are "very specific on confidentiality" of unemployment insurance information.

"The allowed disclosures are prescribed by law," Cartwright said. "The legislators are acting on behalf of the constituent with their consent when inquiring about a claimant's information. The GDOL takes this responsibility to protect claimant information very seriously, and we created this voluntary program as a service to legislators to help constituents with their concerns."

Butler said the agency has welcomed feedback and implemented improvements recommended by lawmakers participating in the program, but he did not get any feedback from Scott until Thursday's letter.

"The GDOL will continue to protect the unauthorized disclosure of employee and employer information just as federal and state law dictates," he said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.