GA Dept of Labor Commissioner answers questions about unemployment claims, delays

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As a follow up to our story earlier this week about the potential consequences for filing fraudulent unemployment claims in Georgia, WJBF reached out again to the Department of Labor to get clarification on that, and other questions. We spoke with Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. In the full phone interview below, he goes over employees returning to work on a partial basis, those who are refusing to return to work even if they can, how to avoid filing a fraudulent claim, how the online Claims Conversion Program works and how you can help avoid delays with your claim.

With many businesses reopening and rehiring as Governor Brian Kemp reopens the state, more jobs are becoming available. A record number of people are receiving state unemployment benefits, along with federal dollars from the CARES Act.

The state has also issued some special exemptions in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Pursuant to the emergency rule issued on March 26, 2020, an individual can make up to $300 per week without reducing their maximum weekly benefit amount, allowing employees to work reduced hours and still qualify for state weekly benefits and the federal $600 weekly supplement.

Butler laid out the stipulations for people who now have the option to return to work in some capacity from their employer, but may choose not to. “They need to understand everybody’s case is going to be different,” said Butler. “There are four allowable situations for which you can now file for unemployment, but that’s not a guarantee,” he said.

Those stipulations are laid out in the emergency rule released on March 19 listed below.

In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the National Emergency declaration
by President Donald Trump on March 13, 2020, and the Public Health State of Emergency
declared by Governor Brian Kemp on March 14, 2020, and under the authority of O.C.G.A.
Section 34-8-93(b), certain individuals unable to work due to the COVID-19 public health
emergency who have an expectation of returning to work when the emergency ceases shall be
considered involuntarily unemployed through no fault of their own. This rule shall apply to all
claims filed on or after March 14, 2020, including but not be limited to an individual:
(a) Quarantined or self-quarantined on the advice of a licensed medical professional;
(b) Sixty (60) or more years of age;
(c) With a recognized medical condition making that individual particularly susceptible to
COVID-19;
(d) Who is a caregiver and resides with someone identified in part (b) or (c) of this
subparagraph; or
(e) Who is a custodial parent or legal guardian of a minor whose school is closed due to
COVID-19 and is unable to secure childcare.

“The onus will be on the claimant to prove any of that,” added Butler. He also pointed out those circumstances will only apply while the state is under the current state of emergency. “Once that goes away, those reasons will no longer be applicable to an unemployment claim. Then you go back to the regular rules we’ve had.”

Butler also explained how some applicants may be knowingly, or unknowingly filing fraudulent claims.

“There are several different ways,” said Butler. “If you’re making money and still claiming unemployment, and you’re not reporting your wages, that can get you caught in a fraud situation,” said Butler. “Also, if you’re one of those people that are saying that you have some type of issue (listed above) and you’re not going back, even though you’ve been offered a job, and you said you were laid off, and in fact, you were actually offered your job, and you don’t qualify for one of those reasons, that can be considered fraudulent,” he said. “And there’s a way for employers to report that,” added Butler. He points out that when you file an individual claim under those circumstances, you’re employer can fight it, and those claims will be investigated. He also notes that if you are fraudulently collecting PUA money, those are federal funds and they are already investigating some claims. “

“I know the U.S. Treasury already started opening up some investigations into fraud on that, and there are a lot of warnings on that system” says Butler. “If you’re sending in false information about your income and trying to get this through fraud then you could be subject to some severe penalties,” added Butler. “The same could be said for the state side of things, and that kind of thing can follow you for years,” said Butler. If the state determines you are receiving or have received fraudulent over-payments, you may be denied unemployment benefits down the road should a situation arise, no matter what the circumstances, according to Butler.

Local attorney Jack Long works unemployment cases in addition to his regular case work. “So a person that’s offered a job, after being on unemployment could risk losing their unemployment benefits if they don’t go back to work,” said Long. “In the event that somebody felt unsafe to go back to work and their benefits were denied, they would have an opportunity to appeal the denial of unemployment to an unemployment hearing officer and to have an unemployment hearing on the denial,” added Long.

Long says an employee would need to prove why they felt unsafe to return to work to win their appeal or case. “Generally in an unemployment appeal you would want to have all your evidence to support your position,” he said. “So in the case of a person that was not going back to work because they felt unsafe, whether it was from the coronavirus, or some other safety issues, they would need documentation that the employer was not providing them with a safe work environment or some other reason that made going back to work impractical or impossible,” said Long.

The GDOL office has handled more fillings since the middle of March than they have in the last four years combined. Still, many applicants have been frustrated with delayed payments and a department that is overwhelmed with claims to respond to. Butler says they are working to get to as many claims as they can everyday, but some applicants are causing their own delays.

“There is an urban legend going around that if your claim is stuck, or if you’re not getting your payments on time, to file another claim and that will speed things up,” said Butler.

“Actually, that is the worst thing you can possibly do,” said Butler. “If you have filed more than one claim, you have basically put a stop to both claims, because anytime our system sees a Social Security number being used that often in a very close space of time, it suspects there might be fraud involved,” says Butler. He adds that it will stop the claim until someone from the GDOL can go into the system and look at it and find out why there are two claims, especially against the same employer.

“Also we have a lot of individuals that have been approved for unemployment right now, but they’re not certifying the weeks they were unemployed,” said Butler. “We have a lot of individuals that have been approved for unemployment right now, and these are some of the people that have been calling all the time trying to get through and find out why they’re not getting paid,” says Butler.

“They have actually been approved for payment and the process is complete for them, however they have not certified the weeks they’ve been unemployed,” added Butler. He says there are 40,000 claims across the state right now in this situation that could be fixed by going through the regular claim process, or the self-employed PUA system. Some people who have been certifying through the regular system and did not qualify, have been switched over to the self-employed PUA system and need to certify their weeks of unemployment that way, because it is a different system for a different benefit. In other words, federal benefits instead of state benefits.

“If we could get those individuals to see that, and take care of that, that can knock down our call volume tremendously,” said Butler. “And then those that have significant issues and need to talk to a real-life human being would be able to get through,” added Butler.

According to a release from the Governor’s Office: Employer-filed partial claims account for 75 percent of the state’s 1.1 million claims since March 14. Employers are required to report an individual’s weekly gross wages when certifying on behalf of the employee with the GDOL. These employer-filed partial claims can include full-time and part-time employees, as long as employers are accurately reporting an individual’s weekly wages. An employer’s account will not be charged for claims filed against it for employer-filed partial claims during this time.

“Despite claims to the contrary, returning to work does not automatically eliminate an individual’s state unemployment eligibility,” said Butler. “In fact, we designed this provision to encourage employers to continue to file while returning employees to work to take advantage of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) benefits.”

The rule states that earnings of $300 or less will not affect entitlement to benefits. Any amount over $300 will be deducted from a claimant’s weekly benefit amount, a payment determination based on an employee’s past wages. As long as a claimant is awarded at least $1 in state benefits, he or she is eligible to receive Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), the additional $600 weekly payment.

“This option was created with lower wage employees in mind,” said Butler. “Allowing Georgians to supplement their income by making an additional $300 or so a week while continuing to receive state benefits, and now the federal supplement, will allow them to continue to heal from the economic wounds brought about by COVID-19.”

If a decision is made by an employee to separate from his/her place of employment, the employee has the right to file an individual claim where an eligibility determination will be made based on the facts presented in the case.

“If an employee is concerned about returning to work due to exposure to COVID-19, we are encouraging employees to communicate with their employers on plans to safely return to work,”explained Butler. “We are all working together on getting Georgians back to work in a safe and stable environment.”

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