ATLANTA — Initial unemployment claims in Georgia are continuing to trend lower, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Jobless Georgians filed 149,163 unemployment claims last week, down more than 16,000 from the week before and the fourth decline during the last five weeks.

The labor department paid out $160.8 million in benefits last week, up $1.3 million from the previous week. Since March 21, when Georgia businesses began shutting down to discourage the spread of COVID-19, the state has distributed more an $1.3 billion in regular unemployment benefits.

The agency issued more than $51 million in benefits last week to self-employed Georgians, gig workers, independent contractors and laid off employees of churches and other nonprofits through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

During the last 11 weeks, the job sector accounting for the most initial unemployment claims by far has been accommodation and food services, with 595,036 claims.

The health care and social assistance job sector is next with 275,476 claims, followed by retail trade with 268,879 claims.

The wave of approximately 2 million claims that have deluged the labor department during the last two months have forced the agency to divert some of its roughly 1,000 employees from their regular duties to process those claims, Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Wednesday. About 650 to 700 employees are working on those claims, he said.

Butler is citing the department’s unprecedented workload in asking the General Assembly to spare the agency from across-the-board budget cuts Gov. Brian Kemp has ordered to help the state government weather the loss of tax revenues brought on by the coronavirus-induced economic downturn.

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