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Some Georgians forget jobless benefit claims as filings rise

A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19.
A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19. (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s labor commissioner has a message to people seeking unemployment benefits: Don’t forget to claim them each week.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told reporters Thursday that more than 50,000 people, more than half the gig economy and self-employed workers approved for a special federal unemployment program to respond to COVID-19, are forgetting to claim their benefits. Recipients have to claim their benefits each week, telling officials they are still unemployed.

At least 1,544 people in the state had died from the virus as of Thursday, with the number of confirmed cases nearing 36,000.

The unemployment news came as a few more workers got the chance to return to their jobs. The Atlanta zoo and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens each announced plans to reopen.

Another 241,000 Georgia workers filed for unemployment last week, pushing the state total of those who have sought jobless benefits to 1.8 million since the crisis began.

The number of new applicants actually rose from 228,000 in the week ended May 2. The state Department of Labor is paying traditional unemployment benefits to more than 800,000 people, Butler said many people are filing claims who can’t prove they have been working, which means the department is denying them.

“We are getting a lot of claims filed on people who have no work history at all,” said Butler, an elected Republican. “I think the word has gotten out ‘Go ahead and file, maybe you’ll get it.’”

The number of people that were getting unemployment benefits actually fell by 75,000 people from a week earlier. The reason behind that drop wasn’t immediately clear.

The state has paid out more than $2 billion in state and federal benefits to workers since late March, with $1.5 billion of that being the special $600-a-week additional federal payments that are going to unemployed workers.

Georgia has been requiring employers who have furloughed workers to file claims on the workers’ behalf. But Butler said Thursday that Georgia is developing a plan to transition people who are permanently laid off to begin filing their own claims without missing any benefits. Many economists have worried that temporary layoffs will become permanent as the crisis drags on. Butler said few such temporary layoffs had become permanent so far in Georgia, but he couldn’t give any figures.

Georgia has approved a separate 109,000 for the special federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, aimed at self-employed and gig economy workers, as well as people with regular jobs who can qualify for the federal program under broadened rules, such as inability to work for lack of child care or because someone has a compromised immune system.

Outdoor areas of the Atlanta zoo will reopen to the public Saturday, with employees wearing masks and the number of visitors limited, zoo officials said.

“We are pleased to welcome our members and guests back to the outdoor experiences and connections to wildlife that can only be found at Zoo Atlanta,” Raymond King, the zoo’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

“As important as this is to us, it was essential that we not reopen the zoo until we could do so confidently, with the safety of our visitors, team members and the animals in our care as the number one priority,” he added. “Many weeks of planning have gone into our reopening, and everything we have done or will do is being done with this in mind.”

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The Atlanta Botanical Garden will reopen its midtown Atlanta location to its members Monday, and to the general public on May 23, officials announced.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be fatal.