FILE - GA Mark Butler 7-18-2019

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

(The Center Square) – Unemployed workers in Georgia no longer will receive additional weekly federal unemployment benefits as of next month, Gov. Brian Kemp and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler announced Thursday.

The state will end three federal programs meant to supplement state unemployment benefits and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits to self-employed, gig workers and part-time workers.

Kemp said the programs are stifling the state's workforce recovery. The state has paid nearly $22 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Even in the middle of a global pandemic, job growth and economic development in Georgia remained strong – including an unemployment rate below the national average," Kemp said in a statement. "To build on our momentum, accelerate a full economic recovery, and get more Georgians back to work in good-paying jobs, our state will end its participation in the federal COVID-19 unemployment programs, effective June 26. As we emerge from this pandemic, Georgians deserve to get back to normal – and today's announced economic recovery plan will help more employees and businesses across our state do so."

Kemp is one of dozen Republican governors who plan to opt out of the federal programs ahead of the Sept. 6 expiration date.

Unemployed workers in Georgia will stop receiving the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provides an additional $300 weekly payment on top of state benefits, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which compensates them after their state benefits run out. Those with mixed earnings no longer will receive an additional $100 from the Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC) program.

Supporters of the change said it is a step toward normalcy.

Georgia Public Policy Foundation President and CEO Kyle Wingfield said Georgia’s labor force is back to more than 99% of what it was before the pandemic, and employment is more than 98% as high. The jobless rate has fallen back to 4.5% where it was as recently as four years ago, he said.

Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) officials said open job listings on the state's official labor exchange system are at a record high of almost a quarter-million jobs, including multiple positions for each listing. Butler said employers have complained about the lack of applicants.

More than 250,000 jobs are listed on GDOL's Employ Georgia website. The state agency has more than 200,000 PUA claims, officials said.

Since late March 2020, GDOL has processed more than 4.7 million regular unemployment initial claims, more than the nine years before the pandemic combined. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has paid more than $21.2 billion in state and federal benefits. Once Georgia ends the federal programs, the GDOL will issue a maximum weekly state benefit of $365 to workers, officials said.

"GDOL has dispersed almost $22 billion in the past 14 months to support families in this crisis, paying mortgages, electric bills and grocery tabs when Georgians were in greatest need," Butler said in a statement. "It is critical for us to support our economy and local businesses by providing solutions to the roadblocks many Georgians have faced when returning to work."

Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Research Associate Ray Khalfani said workers might be weighing the health risks of returning to work over the benefits.

"There's still a global pandemic happening, and until we reach herd immunity, health risks remain," Khalfani said.

Khalfani said the federal programs are a lifeline for unemployed workers, primarily self-employed and gig workers, who account for more than half of the restored workforce.

"They're still living at the margins. I mean, they're barely making it. At least from the account of so many," 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.