Their jobs at the trampoline park earned Constance and Jermaine Summers just enough to get by.
Working for $12 an hour, the couple could squeeze out enough money to continue renting their tiny mobile home in an Atlanta suburb, along with monthly payments on the eight-year-old car they drove with care. Their children, ages 12 and 13, had friends and space to play in the mobile home community where they lived. When tips came their way, the couple could buy the occasional treat for their kids.
But since last March, the family has lost almost everything.
As the pandemic raged, the trampoline park went dark and they were laid off. At first, they got unemployment benefits. Then, with no explanation, their unemployment payments stopped coming. The family was evicted. Because the one-bedroom efficiency apartment they moved into does not accept pets, they had to give their beloved family dog to a local fire station.
What’s more, they lost their car. Eventually both of them found new jobs, but at considerably lower pay. Until the couple gets back on their feet, their children are living with a relative in Texas.
It didn’t have to be this way. If they had gotten the full unemployment benefits they were entitled to, the couple could have paid their bills until they landed new jobs. But like thousands of Georgia residents whose livelihoods were upended by the pandemic, they were let down by the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL), whose extreme delays in processing, paying and hearing appeals on unemployment claims have opened broad tears in the social safety net.
The family learned later that their unemployment payments stopped because their employer had appealed their eligibility for benefits. The family has appealed the disqualification but has not yet received a hearing date.
“It’s supposed to be a bridge, the unemployment system, but it threw us off a cliff, it was no bridge,” Jermaine Summers, 40, said. According to his estimates, he is owed about 17 weeks of benefits, or about $7,000. His wife, he says, should have received about $15,000.
“I’ve worked since I was 15 in the state of Georgia, and for me to have poured all that money into this system and to see how my life has fallen by the wayside when I need the help most, it’s a slap in the face,” he said. “I’m not looking for a handout but I mean, right is right and wrong is wrong, and this is extremely wrong.”
Seeking to have that wrong made right for people across Georgia who find themselves in similar straits, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced in June that it, along with its co-counsel at Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP, is representing a group of residents who are suing GDOL, Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler, and the state of Georgia. The suit argues that major delays on unemployment claims filed during the pandemic violate state and federal law.
‘People are still waiting’
The plaintiffs are asking a judge to certify the suit, which was filed in Fulton County Superior Court, as a class action on behalf of people who have not received a determination of their eligibility or a hearing in their administrative appeal, or who have simply not received unemployment payments they were entitled to collect from the department, which has remained increasingly inaccessible to the public via telephone and email, in person and on its website. The plaintiffs are also asking the judge to order the defendants to follow the law, and to order the state to pay monetary damages to people who have been affected by the delays.
The suit argues that the department is violating state law requiring determinations and payments to be made “promptly.” It also argues that the delays violate the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment right to due process under the U.S. Constitution. Since the lawsuit’s filing, the SPLC and its co-counsel have received emails and phone calls from over 300 frustrated, disheartened unemployment insurance applicants. They are desperate for help, claiming months’ long delays in the GDOL’s processing and payment of their claims, and extreme inaccessibility of the GDOL and its staff and leadership – including Butler – in resolving their claims.
Officials with the department have acknowledged that it was deluged with applications, especially last year. They have also blamed earlier underfunding by state lawmakers for sapping some of the agency’s capacity. However, the agency contends that it has caught up.
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 in the distribution of unemployment benefits.
Attorneys with the SPLC and their partners at local legal aid organizations have been tracking the problems at the GDOL for more than eight months. When the pandemic forced employees there to work remotely, it became increasingly difficult for them to handle the deluge of claims. Scheduling appointments became increasingly trying. Applicants frequently go months without being able to reach anyone at the department. Delays in processing appeals of claims have stretched to beyond six months.
Even after the majority of Georgia government agencies have begun to resume in-person work, the GDOL headquarters and career centers still remain shut to the public. The extreme delays persist. Meanwhile, people are losing their homes, and many are increasingly unable to put food on the table for themselves and their families.
“This is about a state just not serving its constituents,” said Emily Early, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “Yes, there was an increase in claims due to the pandemic and the department was not equipped to deal with that deluge of claims. However, it’s now been 16 months since the pandemic started and people are still waiting.”
The numbers tell the story. Unemployment levels in Georgia were devastating during the pandemic. At its peak, they reached 12.6%. The total number of regular initial unemployment claims filed in the state between March and December 2020 exceeded 4.1 million. During the same period in 2019, about 194,000 such claims were filed. While about 400,000 Georgia residents are currently receiving benefits, as of March, another 180,000 had yet to have their applications for benefits reviewed. More than 40,000 more claims have yet to be adjudicated.
Georgia’s government has failed to rise to the challenge. During the first quarter of 2020, it ranked 28th among states in making unemployment insurance payments and 40th in terms of informing claimants whether or not they qualify to receive benefits. In the first quarter of this year, it took longer to get unemployment claims adjudicated in Georgia than in all but one other state.
What’s more, the economic recovery from the pandemic has been slower for Black and Latinx workers, marked by a 10% slower rate of decline in unemployment claims than for their white and Asian counterparts. In May, claims among Black workers in Georgia were 37% higher than all others, highlighting disproportionately higher layoff risks for Black workers during economic downturns, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“At this point, this is an issue of economic disenfranchisement.” Early said. “People pay into the system with the expectation that when they need and qualify for unemployment insurance, they will get it. These are people – from lower-wage workers in the retail and restaurant industries to entrepreneurs, company managers and other professional white-collar workers – who want to work. But when they cannot during these hard times as the economy tries to recover, these public benefits systems and their ‘public servants’ are meant to help get them back on their feet.”
‘More than heartbreaking’
For Jermaine and Constance Summers, the struggle to get back on their feet is filled with anxiety and loss. Jermaine Summers has donated blood so many times to make extra cash that the technicians couldn’t find a vein the last time he went in. Recently, he landed a job as a clerk at an auto parts store, but he’s making less than half as much as he used to. Right now, the couple is about $500 short on their bills, and the $400 rent on the apartment is coming due. Summers said he has contemplated suicide more than once. Calling the kids four or five times a day helps, he said.
As for Constance Summers, she is trying to move on. A few months ago, she took a job at a pet superstore, and she is training to be a pet groomer, a position that will earn her a higher salary. She describes the struggle over the benefits as “more than heartbreaking,” and says she doesn’t believe she will ever get the unemployment money she is owed.
“I was just running in so many circles that it was just like, I got dizzy and fell down,” Summers said of her months of calls and emails to GDOL, seeking payments. “I would get to the point where I would just break down in tears.
“I just really wish that people in these systems would take just a little more time to listen to people who say, ‘Hey I really need your help, hey, something’s wrong.’ Don’t push people like me by the wayside,” Summers said. “We are people who have been working our whole lives. We don’t deserve to be completely ignored when we need some help.”
Photo by Chris Rank/Corbis via Getty Images