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'I don't know what we're going to do': Georgia family is waiting on over $7,000 in unemployment insurance

"We haven't had an unemployment payment since March 13."

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Ahmi, Jervonia, and Zari Melton.
Courtesy Jervonia Melton

This month, Georgia will stop paying unemployment insurance recipients a $300 weekly supplement from the federal government known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. Originally intended to expire on Labor Day, the supplement will now end for Georgia residents on June 26. (Another 24 states will also cut off the supply early.)

For Georgians Jesse and Jervonia Melton, though, the early cutoff date matters less than the fact that they haven't received an unemployment check since March.

In March 2020, Jesse lost his job working for the city of Atlanta as a meter technician, a position he'd held since 2012. He received unemployment for a year, then reapplied, as required by the state, in March 2021. Nearly three months later, he still doesn't know whether his claim has been approved or denied.

In Georgia, processing times for unemployment insurance can take 4 to 5 weeks, according to the state's Department of Labor. The Meltons say they're now owed over $7,000, and their bills are piling up. "We haven't had an unemployment payment since March 13," says Jervonia. "I don't know what we're going to do."

The Meltons' predicament is far from unique. Thousands of Americans have struggled to obtain jobless aid during the pandemic, according to a new report by the Labor Department's Office of the Inspector General.

Unemployment benefit delays are widespread

The Labor Department audit found that states have struggled to implement the additional unemployment benefits from the federal CARES Act, which was passed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last March.

Under the CARES Act, workers unemployed longer than six months are eligible to receive aid under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program. On average, those workers had to wait nearly two months (50 days) after the CARES Act was signed into law to receive their first payments, according to the Labor Department's audit. And it took nearly a month (25 days) on average for unemployment claimants to receive their federal weekly supplement of $600.

Wait times were also long for freelancers and gig workers: It took them an average of five weeks (38 days) to receive their first payments. The audit describes these waiting periods as "unreasonable," noting that many jobless Americans endured "financial hardships as they struggled to pay bills and satisfy basic needs, such as food and housing."

Leonard Levy, a freelance camera operator from San Rafael, California, who lost work during the pandemic, says he hasn't received aid designed to provide support for gig workers, known as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, since January 1, 2021. By his calculations, he's owed around $2,200 in unemployment aid. "I've called [California's Department of Labor] like five times for this," he says.

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Outdated technology, understaffing in the nation's unemployment offices, and the sudden post-pandemic influx of claims have all contributed to the delays, according to the Office of the Inspector General.

As a result of these issues, the OIG estimates that as of January 2, at least $39.2 billion was "improperly paid and wasted," including fraudulent payments. That money "could have been put to better use," the audit says.

Jervonia has experienced the understaffing issue firsthand as she has struggled to get in touch with the Georgia DOL. After repeated phone calls with hold times of 30 to 40 minutes, she finally got through. A DOL representative told her "it looks good, just wait for someone to call you," Jervonia says. "But no one's ever called."

Proposal to modernize benefits has unclear future

On April 14, Senate Democrats introduced the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act, a bill intended to repair broken state unemployment systems. Sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), the proposed bill would require states to offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, replacing 75% of a worker's average pre-layoff wages (up to the state's maximum weekly benefit). Currently, states only cover about half of workers' pre-layoff pay.

The bill would also provide comprehensive jobless benefits to freelancers and the self-employed.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has made it overwhelmingly clear that our nation's unemployment insurance system is inadequate and unreliable for workers when they lose a job," Bennet said in a statement on April 14.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made it overwhelmingly clear that our nation's unemployment insurance system is inadequate and unreliable.
Michael Bennet
Senator (D-CO)

The prospects for the bill are unclear. While President Joe Biden hasn't commented on Wyden and Bennet's bill specifically, he did discuss a goal to strengthen and "modernize" unemployment insurance when he unveiled his American Families Plan in April.

Historically, Republicans have fought against expanding unemployment benefits, arguing they deter jobless Americans from returning to work. The 25 states opting to end extended federal unemployment benefits early are all led by Republican governors. Democrats have countered that Covid-related factors are continuing to hold back many people from returning to work, including health concerns, closed schools, and a child-care shortage.

Ahmi and Jesse Melton.
Courtesy Jervonia Melton

Waiting (and waiting) for help: 'It just seems so unfair'

For the Meltons, assistance can't come soon enough. Jesse has started driving for Uber but can't earn what he needs to cover the family's expenses. Jervonia, who was also laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, has found part-time work as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. She's actively seeking a full-time role, but the couple is concerned about who will care for their kids, ages 11 and 13, who are still attending school virtually.

While the Melton kids could return to school in person, Jervonia is afraid of the risk. The family lost its health-care coverage when Jesse lost his job, and if any of them developed serious health problems from a Covid-19 infection, the financial consequences could be devastating. "It may not make kids as sick as adults, but it does make them sick," Jervonia says. "I'm not willing to take that chance for my child."

The Meltons still hope they'll be paid what they believe they're owed — and that Georgia's government will take action to improve its unemployment system given the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. "My husband worked for years and was never laid off," Jervonia says. "It just seems so unfair that all of these people who have worked for years, and this one year where it's the worst crisis we've seen in our lifetime, you can't even take care of these people for a year? It's just crazy."

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