Georgia labor agency sued over delays in jobless benefits

Georgia

ATLANTA (AP) — Four Georgia residents are suing the state Department of Labor, saying delays in processing, paying and hearing appeals on unemployment claims violate state and federal law.

The suit was filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court and announced Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The plaintiffs are asking a judge to certify the suit as a class action on behalf of other people who have suffered delays.

Among other things, the plaintiffs demand that the judge order the department to follow the law and that the state pay people money damages.

The suit outlines three different areas where it says the state agency has fallen down — in determining whether someone is entitled to unemployment benefits, in paying benefits quickly after awarding them and in granting timely appeals when benefits are denied.

State lawmakers sought to try to strip Mark Butler, the elected Republican labor commissioner, of some of his power during this year’s regular session of the General Assembly, but Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed the bill. Lawmakers say they were deluged with hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints by constituents who said they were unable to communicate with the department or unable to resolve disputes.

“Applicants for unemployment benefits in Georgia have experienced extreme delays at every step of the process, including waiting several months for a GDOL claims examiner to consider their application for benefits and determine their eligibility, to receive payments for which they have been deemed eligible, and to have their appeals hearing scheduled,” the lawsuit states. “Applicants frequently go months without being able to reach anyone at the GDOL or being contacted by someone at the GDOL.”

The suit argues Butler is violating state law that requires that determinations and payments be made “promptly.” It also argues that the limbo violates the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment right to due process under the U.S. Constitution.

Butler has acknowledged that the department was deluged with applications, especially last year, and has blamed earlier underfunding by state lawmakers for sapping some of the agency’s capacity. However, he said the agency has caught up.

“This is obviously another politically motivated lawsuit. Just like previous lawsuits, we expect to prove that this suit does not have merit,” Butler said in a statement. “These groups believe that unemployment insurance should be paid to everyone who applies, regardless of their qualifications.”

Butler says Georgia is above-average in how quickly it processes claims.

Department officials didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the lawsuit.

Plaintiff Von King, who filed for benefits after leaving her moving company job to take care of her child because of a lack of child care, has been waiting for an appeal to be heard since August. Plaintiff Gereline Thompson says she got a notice in June 2020 indicating her claim had been approved after she was laid off by the Burke County school system, but said she’s never been paid. Plaintiff Danielle Johnson says the department has never decided whether she is eligible for benefits after her initial claim in March 2020.

The suit says the plaintiffs have faced months of uncertainty “while struggling to pay rent and utilities, feed themselves and their families, and pay other regular expenses like medical bills and car payments.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been involved in at least two earlier lawsuits against the department. One was a lawsuit filed in January by workers. A second was a public records lawsuit filed in March.

In April, Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, as well as the six Democratic U.S. House members from the state, asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate delays. Earlier this month, under questioning from Ossoff, a Labor Department nominee pledged in a hearing that the federal government would help Georgia update its computer systems.

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