Georgia Lawmakers Approve More Jobless Benefits, Send Bill To Kemp

Arnashia McCain uses her phone to copy phone numbers posted on the locked doors of a Georgia Department of Labor office May 7 in Norcross. Employees could potentially be eligible to earn more while receiving full unemployment benefits and get benefits for a longer period of time under Senate Bill 408, which was sent to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

John Bazemore / Associated PRess

Workers in Georgia would be allowed to earn several hundred dollars more a week while keeping their full unemployment benefits under a bill that passed the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Employees also would potentially be eligible to receive benefits for a longer period of time under Senate Bill 408, which the Senate sent to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto after approving a change proposed by the House.

The bill is a reversal for Georgia, which slashed the maximum unemployment benefit to 20 weeks in 2012, as it sought to repay money it borrowed from the federal government to pay jobless claims during the Great Recession.

The length of benefits would be set on a sliding scale, starting at 14 weeks when the jobless rate is 4.5% or lower and topping out at 26 weeks when the unemployment rate is above 10%. The current sliding scale is less generous, topping out at 20 weeks when the unemployment rate reaches 9%.

Previously, workers who earned as little as $50 dollars a week could have their jobless benefits reduced. Under the bill, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler could raise that to as much as $300 a week. The new threshold would mean someone could earn up to $665 a week — the $300 a week in wages plus Georgia’s maximum weekly jobless benefit of $365 a week.

Butler, an elected Republican, had already extended and increased the benefits under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Brian Kemp because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Butler’s changes would expire with the end of Kemp’s state of emergency, which could end as soon as next week.

Department of Labor spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said Butler intends to leave the earnings amount at $300 through December.

Georgia joins Idaho, Kansas and Michigan in reextending unemployment benefits they had previously cut below the 26-week level, said Michelle Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. She said that no state that she knows of allows workers to earn as much as $300 and keep all their jobless benefits.

“It allows people to return to work on some meaningful level without having to lose their unemployment benefits,” Evermore said.

Advocates for the unemployed had opposed Georgia’s earlier cutback and were encouraged by the new bill.

“They’re not perfect, but I think they’re a good step in the right direction,” said Alex Camardelle of the liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

The measure also allows the Georgia Department of Labor to implement a work-sharing program, which would let an employer put workers on reduced hours instead of laying them off. Employees on reduced hours would be eligible for jobless benefits.