FILE - GA Mark Butler 7-18-2019

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler

(The Center Square) – Unemployed Georgians may have to wait three to four weeks to receive an additional $300 weekly federal jobless benefits, Georgia labor officials said Thursday.

The Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) has to change its system to issue the payments, which may take weeks to complete.

GDOL Commissioner Mark Butler said the state can't use the same application to process the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) payments because its flagging criteria are different from the U.S. Department of Labor's.

Among other things, unemployment applications can be flagged for back taxes, child support or overpayments. FEMA's system does not screen for those scenarios.

Butler said states that used the previous program to process the payments have had to replace money intercepted by U.S. Department of Labor's criteria.

"So, I'm glad we didn't make the assumption that it was going to be under the same set of rules, or we'd be in the same boat," he said.

The program, called Lost Wages Assistance (LWA), supplements benefits for people who already receive at least $100 a week in unemployment benefits. GDOL still will apply for the payments regardless of the delays.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Aug. 8, earmarking $44 billion in the FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund for LWA.

States that apply are guaranteed the first three weeks of payments, dating back to Aug. 1, but they will need to request additional aid every week. The additional payments will be based on what remains out of FEMA's $44 billion.

"This is a program that is contingent upon the funds being available," GDOL spokesperson Kersha Cartwright said.

Eligible unemployed workers automatically receive the payments for Aug. 1, Aug. 8 and Aug. 15.

For the week ending Aug. 22, GDOL received 56,768 initial unemployment claims.

Workers are eligible for jobless benefits for 14 to 20 weeks, and state payments are up to $365 a week, according to GDOL.

From March 21 to Aug. 22, GDOL has paid $2.4 billion in state unemployment benefits, 94 percent of the state's trust fund. Once the fund is depleted, the agency will have to rely on $1.1 billion in loans from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Treasury authorized GDOL to borrow an initial $85 million this month.

Butler said he plans to withdraw money from the treasury according to the state's needs. The loans will be interest free for 12 months, he said.

"I think we're going to be good," Butler said. "It's something we've managed before, and we've got a lot of expertise in them."

The state faced similar circumstances during the Great Recession and borrowed $1 billion from the federal government to continue to pay benefits to the unemployed labor force. It took about five years to repay the loan and interest.

"The good news is we're hearing that there may be some aid for the trust fund in the future, and we're keeping an eye on that," Butler said.

Butler expects LWA funds to be depleted quickly. He said it would have been better if Congress had extended the previous supplementary program that gave workers an extra $600 for 13 weeks.

"It would be really great if everybody out there had a little better understanding about what kind of effort it takes to pull off some of the stuff that they think of," he said.

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.