Group calls for Georgia Department of Labor offices to reopen, cites lack of services

In this Sept. 10 file photo, several people gather in front of the Georgia Department of Labor’s Rome office to demand the offices be reopened. Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis alongside two candidates for state labor commissioner, Nicole Horn and State Rep. William Boddie, spoke at the protest.

ATLANTA — An online portal the state Department of Labor has created to help Georgia lawmakers address constituent complaints about unemployment claims is essentially passing the buck for the program’s failures, legislative Democrats complained Tuesday.

“(Commissioner of Labor) Mark Butler is asking legislators to do something his office has not done for over a year and a half,” state Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, said during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “Mark Butler has the legislators working for the labor department.”

The new portal is a pilot project aimed at giving members of the General Assembly access to unemployment claims filed by constituents.

Lawmakers have been deluged since the coronavirus pandemic began with complaints from constituents about not receiving unemployment benefits on time and not getting a response from the labor department to their concerns.

But to get access to claims information on the portal, legislators must sign a confidentiality agreement Democrats said would expose them and their legislative staffs to legal requirements they’re not equipped to fulfill, including encrypting data. Scott and other members of the House Democratic Caucus’ Subcommittee on COVID-19 are refusing to sign the agreement.

“We’ve shifted from lawmakers to (claims) processors,” said Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta. “It is the department’s job to do this. … We should be the last resort.”

Kersha Cartright, a spokeswoman for Butler, said the confidentiality agreement lawmakers must sign to access information on individual claims complies with federal and state guidelines aimed at protecting claimant information.

Butler said the program is voluntary. He dismissed the Democrats’ criticism as politically motivated.

“We have been working with several legislators and legislative counsel during a pilot program that Representative Scott did not choose to participate in,” Butler said.

“We have welcomed feedback and implemented improvements from those participating in the program, but have yet to hear anything from Representative Scott before this political statement that fundamentally misrepresents the intent of this program.”

The Democrats also cited an audit by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General of 12 states including Georgia that found antiquated computer systems and understaffing resulting in delays in paying unemployment benefits.

“A lot of these are working Georgians who lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” said Rep. Viola Davis, D-Stone Mountain.

The audit singled out Georgia’s labor department for a lack of transparency.

“There are two other states which were unable to provide data on the timeliness of claims through all three federal enhanced unemployment insurance programs,” Scott and six of her Democratic colleagues wrote in an open letter dated Oct. 4.

“There were four other states which apparently did not report the required claims volume data. Georgia is the ‘only’ state that was unable to provide data on either.”

The letter called on the inspector general to move beyond a performance audit and conduct a financial audit to determine how many valid unemployment claims filed in Georgia have not been paid in full.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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