A state judge in Georgia signed off on the preliminary settlement of a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Labor over extreme delays in the payment of unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the settlement, the GDOL will make multiple improvements to its current system of processing unemployment claims to deal with the extreme delays that have plagued the state agency since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to devastating levels of unemployment in Georgia. At its peak, unemployment in Georgia rose to 12.6%, and some individuals have been waiting for appellate rulings for years.
“While GDOL claims there is no current backlog in making payments for unemployment benefits, we know there are still hundreds of thousands of people waiting for their appeals to be heard, with many having no idea when their appeals will occur,” said Jamie Rush, a senior staff attorney for the SPLC Economic Justice Project. “The changes agreed to in this settlement should allow people to get their claims and appeals processed quicker while keeping them informed about what is going on.”
The lawsuit, filed in 2021, sought to address the systemic issues at the GDOL that resulted in the massive backlog and extreme delays in determinations, payments and appellate decisions. At that time, hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed or an appeal to be heard.
The lawsuit was brought by the SPLC and Atlanta-based law firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore. Under the settlement, the GDOL has agreed to:
- Enhance and improve communication systems, including the implementation of artificial intelligence to streamline the call process.
- Make and maintain upgrades to its online portal, including electronic notifications to claimants and a progress bar indicating the status of a claim.
Additionally, all pending appeals will be processed under a state-of-the-art system which will be completed by the end of the year. Delays in the initial processing of appeals were a major cause of the delays in appellate decisions.
“COVID-19 broke the Georgia unemployment system,” said Jason Carter, a partner with Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore. “This settlement ensures that the communications problems are fixed, that issues with the online portal are addressed, and that GDOL continues to hear feedback from Georgians in the future.”
The GDOL and attorneys for the plaintiffs will attempt to email all people who have expressed interest in this case and others who might qualify as part of the class.
The final settlement is expected to be approved on Sept. 1.
Top picture: People leave the Gwinnett offices of the Georgia Department of Labor. (Credit: Chris Rank/Corbis via Getty Images)