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The Perilous Mess of Applying for Unemployment Right Now

“As soon as this is over, that’s going to be three months of rent, three months of phone bill—and you’ve been out of work.”

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty
A man collects unemployment forms at a drive-thru collection point in Hialeah, Florida.

Jonathan Canales has been working in service on and off since he was 17, and was a chef at an Atlanta bar called Georgia Beer Garden until about a month ago. Canales, who is 32 now, said his employers did right by the staff after closing down because of the coronavirus, quickly filing partial unemployment claims for employees at both Georgia Beer Garden and their other bar, Joystick. Canales received his approval for benefits, $365 a week, about a week later. Not too long after that, his benefits card came in the mail. The system seemed to be working.

Except there was no money on the card. He turned to the Georgia Department of Labor’s website for an answer, but found a mess. “You try logging on, and the user interface of it is abysmal,” he told The New Republic. “And there’s no way for you to send them an email. There is no direct way to contact someone other than calling them.” When he did call, an automatic recording informed him that the phone lines were tied up, and then the line disconnected. 

April came and with it another mortgage bill. Canales said he spent hours on the phone with Wells Fargo on the last day of the month trying to apply for a mortgage forbearance, and was sent information on how to defer his payments for three months. It’s a necessary pause, but Canales doesn’t know how he will  pay the bill for three months of his mortgage without unemployment benefit. 

Before the pandemic, there were 300,000 people working in the restaurant industry in the Atlanta-metro area. “I don’t know a single person that has received benefits at all,” Canales said. Workers in other sectors across the state and around the country have experienced similar delays while applying for unemployment, facing the same uncertainty about what the coming weeks, let alone the coming months, will look like. In the last two weeks alone, an estimated 10 million people have filed claims nationally. That’s a lot of potentially disconnected calls and empty debit cards. 

Under normal circumstances in Georgia, applying for unemployment can be time-consuming and frustrating, but the process was meant to be simpler during the pandemic: An employer applies en masse for their employees and notes they were let go because of the virus. This removes the necessity of the Department of Labor investigating claims. Unfortunately, the changes meant to simplify the system were opaque and hard to navigate, according to both employees and management. 

Jane Vanderheyden, a bartender, said she filed her own unemployment claim on March 15, before she knew employers were supposed to file on behalf of all furloughed employees. Vanderheyden’s employer also filed a claim for her on March 23, but she said she still hasn’t received any benefits, despite being approved. Her roommate is also a bartender who was laid off as a result of the pandemic. He filed his own claim too, but unlike Vanderheyden, he has already received two weeks of benefits. The lack of cohesion in how the unemployment claims are processed only adds to the stress and frustration, she said. 

Multiple bartenders, servers, and chefs I spoke to mentioned their growing fear about bills gradually piling up as time passes. Even with a temporary moratorium on evictions in Atlanta, they still have months of rent and bills accruing. “The bills are still coming. I’m approaching $2,000 in debt,” said Angi Hampton, a longtime hospitality worker. She worked at Canoe, an upscale restaurant, for close to two years before it closed to all but to-go orders last month. “As soon as this is over, that’s going to be three months of rent, three months of phone bill, and you’ve been out of work.” 

Hampton also described repeated calls to the Georgia Department of Labor with no response. The day after our interview, she messaged to say someone had finally called her back. The representative said to wait another seven to 14 days. 

As recently as August of last year, Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican who ran on a campaign of “blow[ing] up government spending” while brandishing a gun and chain saw, requested a 4 percent cut across state agencies for 2020 and a 6 percent cut for 2021. At that time, Georgia’s unemployment claims were at a near-record low. This is when times were comparatively good. If you want to understand the crisis the state finds itself in right now, you might want to start with its recent record of austerity. 

Andrea Williams was a manager at a restaurant with a busy rooftop bar who filed for unemployment for 19 staff members. Williams and some of her staff were relieved to be approved for benefits but still experienced issues in actually getting the money. One of her staff members received the benefits card but said it had no money on it. Some had their benefits taxed while others did not, despite Williams filing the same claim for everyone. The income shown on Williams’s own unemployment determination letter was incorrect. Two of her staff were outright denied. 

After Spencer Ellen’s employer, a popular neighborhood tapas restaurant, furloughed him on March 17, he registered for unemployment and quickly received a confirmation email. A week and a half later, Ellen received a letter saying he was not eligible for weekly payments because his reported income for the last four quarters was “$0.00.” A closed Facebook group for service workers shared similar horror stories of missing income on benefit determination letters. One post detailed a Department of Labor representative saying the letters with $0.00 earnings were a glitch without offering information about how this glitch would be solved. It feels like “everyone is making the rules up as they go along,” Ellen said. 

The Georgia Department of Labor has yet to respond to my request for comment, but Denise Beckwith, the division director at the Georgia Unemployment Insurance Program, said it is dealing with an unprecedented level of claims. 

According to the Georgia Department of Labor’s website, the department processed 12,140 initial claims for unemployment in the third week of March, compared to 5,445 the week before. That week of March 15 was also when many Atlanta-area restaurants decided to close to all but to-go orders. The site goes on to say that, “The GDOL anticipates substantially higher claims in the coming weeks and is already seeing a higher number of claims than were filed during the 2008–2009 recession.” On March 25 alone, the website had 110,000 visitors. 

By the end of last month, there were 35,000 corona-related GoFundMe campaigns on the for-profit website. And when it looked like closures were unavoidable, a number of local restaurateurs joined together to create #ATLFAMILYMEAL, a nonprofit that uses the city’s network of kitchens to make and deliver food to furloughed service workers, helping to fill the void left by an ineffective and inadequate government safety net. Michael Lennox, who led the initiative and whose Electric Hospitality restaurant group has three restaurants in Atlanta, said he is proud of the volunteer work being done to support the community but sees its limits as people struggle to have their daily needs met: “We shouldn’t have to form a nonprofit to create a safety net for hundreds of thousands of people.” 

As Hampton, who worked at Canoe, waits for her benefits to come through, she’s growing increasingly alarmed at how little money she has left to live on. “My son had to pay my rent this month,” she said. She’s been out of a job since March 15. It’s nearly a month later, and there’s only $30 left in her account.