ATLANTA -- Earlier today, U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee approved a preliminary settlement in a lawsuit filed against the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) over the payment and processing of unemployment insurance benefits claims. Under the settlement, 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 class action lawsuit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Atlanta-based law firm Bondurant, Mixson, & Elmore LLP (BME) in 2021 at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed or an appeal to be heard. The lawsuit sought to address the systemic issues at GDOL that resulted in a massive backlog and extreme delays in determinations, payments, and appellate decisions.
Under the settlement, GDOL has agreed to enhance and improve communication systems, including the implementation of artificial intelligence to streamline the call process. GDOL has also agreed to 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 also 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.
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. GDOL and SPLC will also put notices on their websites that would allow potential class members to access a copy of the settlement agreement and provide information on filing an objection if a class member disagrees with the settlement agreement.
The final settlement is expected to be approved on Sept. 1. The pandemic led to devastating levels of unemployment in Georgia. At its peak, unemployment in Georgia rose to 12.6 percent, and some individuals have been waiting for appellate rulings for years.
The following is a statement from Jamie Rush, senior staff attorney for the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center:
“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. 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 following is a statement from Jason Carter, partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP:
“COVID-19 broke the Georgia unemployment system. 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. It also ensures that hundreds of thousands of appeal requests will be processed as quickly as possible under a brand-new system. These new systems should provide timely information to claimants, reduce the number of chokepoints, and help ensure that the system won’t break again.”
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