FILE - Georgia Unemployment

(The Center Square) – The Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) has cleared its backlog of regular unemployment claims.

After 34 weeks of unemployment claims at historic levels prompted by COVID-19 restrictions, GDOL is processing claims at pre-pandemic rates, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said.

"Any delays you are currently hearing regarding claims are not related to processing," Butler said in a statement Thursday. "We are processing claims at pre-COVID rates."

The GDOL and Butler faced heavy criticism from state Democrats for the delay in claim processing. Members of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus Subcommittee on COVID-19 sent a letter last month to U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Georgia, seeking a federal probe into the department's unemployment claim process. The Democrats claimed the GDOL violated federal law, which requires unemployment benefits to be paid within 21 days to those who qualify.

Butler said the GDOL now is processing claims within seven days.

"The claims that are taking a while are the ones where there is a disagreement about the separation reason between the employer and employee," Butler said.

After the GDOL processes a claim, the employer is contacted and has 10 days to respond with the reason for the job loss. GDOL then reviews the claim and decides whether to approve the benefits.

From March 21 to Nov. 7, the GDOL has processed more than 4 million regular unemployment claims. The state has paid out $3.8 billion in regular unemployment benefits during that time, draining the $2.5 billion in the unemployment trust fund before the pandemic started.

Gov. Brian Kemp approved in October the transfer of $1.5 billion from the state's coronavirus relief fund, awarded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for the GDOL to repay the U.S. Department of Labor for loans needed to continue paying unemployment benefits.

The GDOL dispersed nearly $52 million in state unemployment benefits last week. Since March, with federal supplementary unemployment, Georgians have received more than $15.7 billion in unemployment insurance benefits, which is more than the past 28 years combined, the GDOL said.

Last week's initial unemployment claims numbered 23,827, down 13,426 compared with the previous week.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four 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.