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Gov. Kemp: Georgia to cut jobless benefits to push people to work

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp walks to board an airplane Tuesday, May 11, 2021 at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee, Ga. Kemp announced he was suspending state taxes on gasoline and diesel through Saturday to give price relief following a pipeline outage. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp walks to board an airplane Tuesday, May 11, 2021 at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee, Ga. Kemp announced he was suspending state taxes on gasoline and diesel through Saturday to give price relief following a pipeline outage. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy) (Associated Press)

ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that the state will become the 13th to cut off the $300-a-week federal supplement to unemployed workers next month, saying employers are demanding that the state do more to force people into the workforce.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, an elected Republican, is the one who actually must make the decision. Kemp and Butler have been in talks about cutting off federal benefits. A spokesperson for Butler didn’t immediately respond to a text about whether Butler has agreed to the move. Kemp promised more details later Thursday.

“We’re not doing away with regular unemployment,” Kemp said in an appearance on Fox News. “We’re just taking away this federal subsidy that’s encouraging people not to get in the workforce.”

Georgia’s state-run unemployment program has a maximum weekly benefit of $365 and a minimum benefit of $55.

“This is an issue I’m getting pounded on every day with our small business people,” Kemp said. “It’s not fair to the people that are currently in the workforce. They are getting killed right now, they’re having to work so many hours. They need some help.”

Defenders of extra benefits say the labor market is still disrupted by COVID-19, particularly because mothers may be staying home with children.

It’s unclear if the state will take other moves to limit benefits. Georgia could withdraw from a special federal benefit to people not usually eligible for state unemployment. Butler could also decrease the amount of money someone can earn and still qualify for benefits, which he set at $300 when the pandemic began, meaning people who are working reduced hours can still qualify for the $300-a-week federal boost.

Butler said last week that he would reinstate the requirement that people drawing benefits search for work “in the next few months,” but didn’t say when.

So far, 12 other states led by Republicans have announced that they will stop paying the extra benefit as soon as June or July. That includes Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and a number of other business groups on Monday called for suspending the benefits, saying that getting unemployed men and women “connected to employers and back to work is the first step” to solving a labor shortage.

“Because they cannot find labor, businesses are starting to turn down orders, raise prices, and some are even considering closing permanently,” the business groups wrote. “Many restaurants are only offering drive-through, pick-up service, not because of COVID, but because they cannot find enough workers to support full-scale operations.

About 32,000 Georgians filed new unemployment claims in the week that ended May 8, and about 121,000 people are receiving traditional unemployment benefits from the state program. New claims remain elevated, although the total number of people receiving benefits has been falling.

Another 126,000 Georgians were getting special federal assistance available to people who were self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, or employees of churches and nonprofits. Most states cutting off the $300-a-week benefit are also quitting that program, which was created to help people ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

Despite those numbers, Georgia’s workforce is only 44,000 below the record of 5.2 million that it hit in March 2020. Employer payrolls are 4%, or 180,000, below the all-time high of 4.67 million.

Georgia had a 4.5% unemployment rate in March, below the 6% national average.

The Georgia business groups acknowledged there may not be enough workers to meet employers’ needs.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.