The Department of Labor said it is still receiving a month’s worth of entitlements every week. It blames Congress for the phone jam.

ATLANTA – You may never have tested positive for COVID-19, but chances are you are financially affected. More than four million people filed for unemployment in Georgia last year. This loss of work created an unimaginable job for people like Stacey Jones at the Department of Labor (DOL).

When we spoke to Jones outside the DOL building in downtown Atlanta, she was sitting enjoying the sun. She hasn’t spent a lot of time on it in the past year.

“Maybe it’s coming through the window in my car,” she said with a laugh.

Jones worked more overtime than any other government employee. To be precise – 1,461 hours of overtime.

“At first it was ‘Oh yes, this will be over soon.’ A matter of two to three months, that’ll be fine, “explained Jones.

If you’re having issues with your Georgia jobless claim, scroll down for resources

But months have dragged on to more than a year now. Jones is the head of tax administration. This is the office that deals with employers. But during the pandemic, she was asked to look after the staff as well.

“The phones ring every day so we answer calls, emails, and voicemails all day,” said Jones.

Someone posted her email and phone number on social media so she also received 100-200 direct messages.

RELATED: Report: Thousands of Georgians Expected to Appeal Against Unemployment Benefit

Several times a year Jones travels west to visit family, relax on the beach, and read. But this year she has barely seen the family living in their own house.

“We had to go without simple things like dinner together,” said Jones.

11Alive’s investigative team, The Reveal, has pulled out Georgia’s overtime data for the past three years. Traditionally, the government employees who worked the most overtime worked for the Department of Justice and Conduct – correctional facilities and home nurses.

In 2020, the Department of Behavioral Health topped the list with 39 of the top 50 overtime earners. The highest in the state, a community home account manager with 2,639 overtime hours.

But 2020 was the beginning of something new. Last year, the remaining 11 of the top 50 were from DOL, all with more than a thousand hours of overtime.

“There are a lot of people here who haven’t had a day off for a year. When I say a day off, I include Saturdays and Sundays, ”said Commissioner Mark Butler.

Butler isn’t sure when that’ll change. While the unemployment rate is falling, DOL receives around 25,000 new jobless claims every week. That’s more than his office usually handles in a month.

“If you had told me that basically we were going to have to pay $ 20 billion in unemployment benefits one year, I would have told you you would have gone mad,” Butler said.

Only 15 percent of the callers get through

But if you’re still waiting to get paid, you might feel a little crazy. In just two weeks, 11Alive received nearly 200 emails from viewers struggling with their claims. Most are based on the inability to get in touch with anyone at DOL to answer their questions or to clarify what they think is a flaw in their claim.

The commissioner admits that only about 15 percent of callers reach someone who can help.

“That’s what happens when Congress puts 85 percent of the responsibility for funding a department that has underfunded it for 10 years,” said the commissioner.

RELATED: US Jobless Claims Up To 744K As Virus Still Forces Layoffs

Butler claims it is Congress that is casting that shadow, approving complicated federal unemployment programs with no state systems to make the payments. Then it was Congress that allowed benefits to expire without approving funding for those who stopped receiving checks that fall.

“You only said if you are still unemployed in January we will pay you,” he said.

And now Butler said that 80 percent of the claims in his office come from people who have been terminated or fired. People who traditionally don’t qualify for unemployment but believe federal programs can still help.

“A lot of false information has been released,” said Butler.

Whatever the reason, with around 60,000 calls a day, 51,000 go unanswered. And just in case there is a way to ease some benefit entitlement, people like Jones handle the majority of the new cases by hand.

DOL has around 600 new employees to help handle claims, but with a high turnover rate and a lengthy training process, phones can still ring for months.

When asked when the offices will reopen so people can try to discuss their claims in person, a DOL spokesperson said, “Until we have vaccinated most of our frontline workers, we are not planning to reopen our employees’ lives, Letting people into our offices, especially since 95% of the work that needs to be done right now isn’t done face-to-face in our offices, but online or over the phone. The only reason someone should come to our Career Center now is for a workshop. We have suspended all face-to-face workshops for the time being. “

One step to help or to hurt?

State lawmakers, tired of hearing complaints from voters, devised their own plan to help. At the previous meeting they voted to create a new position on an equal footing with the Commissioner. The person is appointed by the House Speaker and draws staff from the existing DOL workforce to conduct financial reviews and respond to legislative questions.

“One of the challenges my constituents face and continue to face is the inability to react. They felt like they were walking into a black hole,” said Rep. Todd Jones during a committee meeting to discuss the bill.

The commissioner fought vigorously against the idea, fearing that it would drain the already scarce financial and human resources.

“There is hardly any balance between private and professional life. It works pretty much all the time, ”said Jones.

GA. UNEMPLOYED RESOURCES:

  • Check your unemployment claim status here
  • Make an appointment first Monday morning when 1,500 new ones are available
  • Call the state helpline at 855-436-7365
  • Call your local DOL Career Center – click here for a list of locations
  • Check the DOL Facebook page to see if your question has already been answered
  • If the above resources don’t answer your questions, contact 11Alive using the form below. Please provide your name, your telephone number, the reason for contacting the DOL (e.g. PIN blocked, services not received, services discontinued) as well as relevant data and information that will help you to research your problem.

The Reveal is an investigative show that exposes inequality, injustice and incompetence created by those in power across Georgia and across the country.

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