Their jobs in the trampoline park earned Constance and Jermaine Summers just enough to make ends meet.

The couple worked for $ 12 an hour and managed to squeeze enough cash to keep renting their tiny motor home in suburban Atlanta, along with monthly payments for the eight-year-old car they carefully drove. Their children, ages 12 and 13, had friends and space to play in the RV community where they lived. When tips came, the couple could buy the children a treat from time to time.

But since last March the family has lost almost everything.

When the pandemic raged, the trampoline park went dark and they were released. First they got unemployment benefits. Then, without explanation, their unemployment benefits stopped coming. The family was evicted. Since the one-bedroom efficiency apartment they moved into doesn’t accept pets, they had to hand over their beloved family dog ​​to a local fire station.

They also lost their car. Eventually both found a new job, albeit at significantly lower wages. Until the couple gets back on their feet, their children are living with a relative in Texas.

It didn’t have to be like that. Had they received their full unemployment benefits, the couple could have paid their bills until they found a new job. But like thousands of Georgia residents whose livelihoods have been turned upside down by the pandemic, they have been abandoned by the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL), whose extreme delays in processing, paying, and hearing appeals on jobless claims have ripped them apart have opened the social safety net.

The family later learned that their unemployment benefit had been suspended because their employer appealed their right to benefits. The family has appealed the expulsion but has not yet received a hearing.

“It was supposed to be a bridge, the unemployment system, but it knocked us off a cliff, it wasn’t a bridge,” said Jermaine Summers, 40. He estimates he’s entitled to about 17 weeks of benefits, or about $ 7,000. His wife, he says, is said to have received about $ 15,000.

“I’ve worked in the state of Georgia since I was 15, and for me to have put all that money into this system and seeing my life fall by the wayside when I need it most, it’s a blow face in the heart, ”he said. “I’m not looking for a handout, but I mean right is right and wrong is wrong, and that is extremely wrong.”

To redress this injustice for people across Georgia who are in similar trouble, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced in June that it is representing a group of residents along with its co-advisor at Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP, the GDOL , sue Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and the state of Georgia. The lawsuit argues that major delays in unemployment claims filed during the pandemic are against state and federal law.

“People are still waiting”

Plaintiffs are asking a judge to confirm the lawsuit filed in Fulton County’s Superior Court as a class action on behalf of individuals who did not receive an eligibility statement or a hearing in their administrative complaint, or who simply did not receive unemployment benefits that they received from the department that is less and less accessible to the public by phone and email, in person, and on their website. The plaintiffs also ask the judge to order the defendants to obey the law and order the state to pay damages to those affected by the delays.

The lawsuit argues that the department is violating state law that requires determinations and payments to be made “immediately.” She also argues that the delays violate plaintiffs’ right to due process under the U.S. Constitution of Amendment 14. Since the filing of the lawsuit, the SPLC and its co-attorney have received emails and phone calls from over 300 frustrated and discouraged unemployment insurance applicants. They are desperate for help, demanding months of delays in the processing and payment of their claims by GDOL and the extreme inaccessibility of GDOL and its staff and management – including butlers – in settling their claims.

Department officials have admitted that it has been inundated with applications, especially over the past year. They have also blamed previous underfunding by state lawmakers for undermining some of the agency’s capabilities. However, the agency claims to have caught up.

In April, US Democratic sensors Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and the six members of the US House of Representatives asked the US Department of Labor to investigate delays in unemployment benefit payments.

SPLC lawyers and their partners at local legal aid organizations have been following the problems at GDOL for more than eight months. As the pandemic forced employees there to work remotely, it became increasingly difficult for them to cope with the flood of claims. Appointments became more and more difficult. Applicants often stay for months without reaching anyone in the department. The delays in processing appeals against claims have extended to more than six months.

Even after the majority of government agencies in Georgia began to resume their personal work, GDOL headquarters and career centers will remain closed to the public. The extreme delays persist. Meanwhile, people are losing their homes and many are increasingly unable to bring food to the table for themselves and their families.

“This is about a state that just doesn’t serve its citizens,” said Emily Early, senior attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “Yes, there has been a surge in claims due to the pandemic and the department was not equipped to deal with this flood of claims. However, it has now been 16 months since the pandemic started and people are still waiting. “

The numbers tell the story. Unemployment in Georgia was devastating during the pandemic. At the top they reached 12.6%. The total number of regular initial jobless claims filed in the state between March and December 2020 exceeded 4.1 million. Around 194,000 such claims were filed during the same period in 2019. While around 400,000 Georgian residents are currently receiving benefits, another 180,000 had to review their applications for benefits by March. More than 40,000 other lawsuits have yet to be resolved.

The Georgian government did not rise to this challenge. In the first quarter of 2020, it ranked 28th among states in paying unemployment insurance and 40th in informing applicants whether or not they are entitled to benefits. In the first quarter of this year, Georgia took longer to resolve unemployment claims than any other state but one.

In addition, the economic recovery from the pandemic has been slower for black and Latinx workers, characterized by a 10% smaller decline in unemployment claims than for their white and Asian counterparts. In May, claims among black workers in Georgia were 37% higher than any other, highlighting a disproportionately higher risk of layoffs for black workers during an economic downturn, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

“Right now this is an issue of economic disenfranchisement.” Said early. “People pay into the system with the expectation that if they need and are entitled to unemployment insurance, they will get it. These are people – from low wage earners in retail and hospitality to entrepreneurs, managers and other professional employees – who want to work. But if they can’t make it through these difficult times when the economy is trying to recover, these public benefit systems and their ‘officials’ should help them get back on their feet. “

“More than heartbreaking”

For Jermaine and Constance Summers, the struggle to get back on their feet is fraught with fear and loss. Jermaine Summers has donated blood so many times to make extra cash that the technicians couldn’t find a vein on his last visit. He recently got a job as a clerk in an auto parts store, but he’s making less than half his lot as he used to. Right now, the couple’s bills are roughly $ 500, and the $ 400 rent on the apartment is due. Summers said he had thought of suicide more than once. It helps to call the kids four or five times a day, he said.

As for Constance Summers, she’s trying to move on. A few months ago she took a job in a pet shop and is training to be a pet hairdresser, a position that earns her a higher salary. She describes the struggle for benefits as “more than heartbreaking” and says she doesn’t think she will ever get the unemployment benefits that she is owed.

“I just walked in so many circles that I felt dizzy and fell,” said Summers of her months of calls and emails to GDOL asking for payments. “I got to the point where I just burst into tears.

“I just really wish that people in these systems would take a little more time to listen to people who say, ‘Hey, I really need your help, hey, there’s something wrong.’ Don’t blame people like me, ”said Summers. “We are people who have worked all our lives. We don’t deserve to be completely ignored when we need help. “

Photo by Chris Rank / Corbis via Getty Images