April 2, 2012
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ATLANTA -- His name is not important; his story is. Let’s call him Joe. Life has been bad lately for Joe and others like him. And now, thanks to the heartless actions of the Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly, things are about to get worse for many more Joes.
As legislators raced toward adjournment in the waning hours of their mandated 40-day annual session in late March, they trampled on the well-being of those who will become unemployed in the months ahead. It’s already hard enough to get, and keep, jobless benefits here in the Peach State. The pay is paltry, there’s a long wait to get the first check, and there’s little hope of getting additional benefits if claimants can’t find a job in six months.
Joe is typical. He lost his job in mid-January. The very next day Joe went to a Georgia Department of Labor office to file for unemployment benefits. The computer application process took two hours to complete. A state worker, after checking Joe’s application, told him he would not get his first benefit check until his claim had been certified by a DOL officer at headquarters in Atlanta. The call, he told Joe, should come in several days.
Only when he was certified could Joe start receiving $330 per week from the state. When Joe protested that he was making much more than that and had many bills to pay, the worker gave Joe the facts of life: everyone on unemployment in Georgia gets $330 a week -- TV anchors, stockbrokers or coffeehouse baristas. And once taxes were withheld, the DOL worker said the weekly payout would be closer to $280.
Joe went home unhappy. Republicans in the U.S. Congress were blocking moves to hike taxes on the richest Americans, those now making thousands and thousands more than Joe. Yet Republicans in Georgia were making sure taxes were deducted from his measly jobless benefit, one he had yet to see. As Joe began making frantic calls to find a new job, he waited for the telephone to ring, with a state bureaucrat allowing his weekly paychecks to begin pouring in.
Joe had nothing. He received no severance package and was told his health benefits and 401 (K) contributions would be terminated at the end of January. Without a job or jobless benefits, Joe could not pay his mortgage, utility bills, insurance, or buy food for himself and his wife for very long. And beginning February 1, when his health coverage ended, he could continue under the COBRA plan but it would cost $1,400 per month.
Days came and went. There were no calls from the Department of Labor brain trust. Several days became several weeks. Not one penny of income went to his sagging bank account. Without his savings, bills might not have been paid. To help himself, Joe dropped his gym membership, reduced the level of cellular phone and computer service, cut his food bill in half, and drove only when trips were essential. Beyond that, Joe ended dinners out, weekend trips, and a planned two-week vacation trip was canceled. Still, there was no call from DOL.
After a month, Joe called a supervisor at his local Labor Department office. She had no trouble understanding his financial fix. The problem, she said, was that the Department was so understaffed from budget cuts that claims certifiers were overwhelmed. She explained the obvious: Georgia’s jobless rate remains stubbornly high so there are more “Joes” filing for help every single day and the same small number of state workers.
To Joe’s great relief, the supervisor said she would call HQ and see if she could certify Joe immediately to help break the logjam. Atlanta approved and Joe was surprised that the official process took less than 10 minutes on the phone. A check for the first four weeks would be direct-deposited into Joe’s account in a few days.
When that initial payment reached his bank, Joe discovered the prediction a month earlier had been true. After deductions, Joe’s $330 was now $277 but at least money was flowing into his account, not out of it. He had to call the Department every Wednesday to report his employment status and whether he had earned any money in the previous week.
All the while, Joe looked for work. He was over-qualified for one job, inexperienced for the next. The Labor Department Web site had a list of jobs available and Joe was tempted to apply for nearly all of them. But the state acted as a sentinel. When he applied for a job, the DOL decided whether Joe had all the qualifications required.
Because his wife is medically unable to work, Joe knew the family livelihood depended on him. So he called folks he knew in Atlanta and elsewhere, outlining his employment predicament, and asking for a favor. But in a tight job market, there were few favors to dispense. When Joe applied for opportunities online, he discovered there were scores, sometimes hundreds of other job-seekers competing for the same position. In the interim, he found some freelance work, both locally and out of town. But it barely covered the monthly costs. And Joe also discovered that when he reported freelance or temporary earnings, money was deducted from his jobless benefit. One week Joe did well on a freelance assignment, or so he thought. His unemployment check that week was not $277, it was $67.
Then Joe learned his pittance might be pulled out from under him. Georgia had to repay a huge debt to the federal government. The Peach State owed Uncle Sam millions of dollars that it borrowed when the state’s unemployment trust went into deep deficit. Now it became crystal-clear. Georgia was under water – too many jobless, two few dollars to help them out in their time of need.
Early in the session, the Republican-dominated legislature needed to find ways to pay back the hefty debt of $760 million. In desperation, the majority introduced House Bill 347 on jobless payments. It would reduce the number of benefit weeks from 26 to 12 and make those without work wait a bit longer for their checks to come in. Joe found this odd. He’d waited a month. How much longer could the state make others wait? Until they declared bankruptcy? Until they committed suicide? Until they robbed a bank and went to jail, where their costs were covered?
Supporters of the measure said they did not want to hit employers with a huge new tax for jobless benefits when businesses are trying to recover. Democratic lawmakers howled. They said the state created the problem by cutting unemployment insurance taxes on companies, creating the massive debt, which it should not have done in the first place. They said the GOP bill would hurt Georgia families at the worst possible time, with a state unemployment rate of 9 percent, more than 1 percent higher than the national figure. Republicans made some concessions but claimed the state had to repay the debt soon or face steep surcharges that the feds were threatening to levy on states which failed to repay their loans in a timely manner. The bill disappeared from sight as it made its way through legislative committees.
By the end of March, Joe still had not landed a full-time job and still relied on DOL and freelance income. News about the jobless benefits legislation had all but disappeared. Then, with just 90 minutes left in the 2012 legislative session, the Georgia Senate voted 37-17 on a compromise measure to reimburse Washington for its loan. The state House approved the bill 98-60 shortly thereafter.
The compromise said the unemployment benefit checks would fall from the current 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 to 20 weeks, slightly better than the original proposal of 12. The new bill threw out the provision that imposed a one-week waiting period before the initial check is issued. And it increased the corporate tax for unemployment insurance. For Democrats it was time to say “I told you so.”
And for Joe, there was a sigh of relief. The new measure said job-losers like him, already receiving benefits, would be grandfathered into the present system. Only new applicants would be affected by the changes.
Still, Georgia’s elected representatives had acted to punish those without work and earning next-to-nothing on the same day the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives approved a new federal budget blueprint, giving tax breaks to millionaires.
Joe keeps pounding the pavement, now even harder. His financial lifeline remains tenuous. He has no idea what happens to him after 26 weeks.
There are lots of Joes on the short end of the recession’s stick. I’m one of them. Joe is my middle name.
George Bauer is a print and broadcast journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia.