FILE - GA Mark Butler 7-18-2019

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

(The Center Square) – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and an Atlanta-based law firm have sued the Georgia Department of Labor over unemployment benefits delays.

They claim the state agency did not follow federal law and process jobless claims in a timely manner. The lawsuit is asking the court to enforce Georgians’ due process rights and to award monetary damages.

“State and federal law guarantee certain promptness and due process rights to plaintiffs, and all other members of the classes that plaintiffs seek to represent,” the attorneys said in the lawsuit. “Repeatedly and systematically, the GDOL has violated those rights – failing to make prompt determinations regarding unemployment benefits, failing to provide prompt appeal hearings of those determinations, and failing to make payments that are undeniably due.”

SPLC and Bondurant, Mixon & Elmore attorneys said unemployed Georgians have been waiting months for their claims to be processed and experiencing delays in receiving payments or getting their appeals heard. They argue Congress allocated $67 million to Georgia to assist GDOL with three temporary unemployment insurance benefits, but delays persist.

Attorneys said Clarke County resident Von King has been waiting almost a year to have her appeal heard. All of the other dozen plaintiffs and class members have experienced months of waiting.

DeKalb County Plaintiff Danielle Johnson filed for unemployment after being diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. She was pregnant at the time and had to leave her job. The attorneys said Johnson has been verifying payments every week, but GDOL has not confirmed her eligibility yet.

Two other unemployed workers are named in the lawsuit, along with nine anonymous class members. GDOL officials said they are reviewing the cases included in the lawsuit.

GDOL Commissioner Mark Butler said the lawsuit, and others like it, is politically motivated. Six unemployed Georgians also sued the department in January over the delays. The state, GDOL and Butler are named in the class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday.

“Just like previous lawsuits, we expect to prove that this suit does not have merit,” Butler said. “These groups believe that unemployment insurance should be paid to everyone who applies, regardless of their qualifications. The same groups should be more concerned with helping people go back to work in one of the hundreds of thousands of jobs currently available across the state of Georgia.”

As of Wednesday, more than 220,000 jobs are listed on the state’s job search website, EmployGeorgia. GDOL Spokesperson Kersha Cartwright said there are about 54,000 appealed claims waiting on hearings. The agency must review and investigate those claims before a hearing can be scheduled. About 60,000 claims are pending eligibility because of a reason other than a lack of work. GDOL must contact the employer and before resolving the claim.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said Georgia is “severely underperforming” according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics when it comes to unemployment benefit administration. While most states issued the first benefit payment within 14 days to 21 days, Georgia issued just 54% of initial unemployment payments within that time frame.

“A brief scan of the GDOL’s own social media pages reveals innumerable posts highlighting the extent of the GDOL’s failures, inaccessibility, and severe delays in determining eligibility, paying benefits, and scheduling appeal hearings,” Emily Early, senior supervising staff attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project, said. “This catastrophe cannot continue.”

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.