Nearly 243,000 Georgians filed initial unemployment claims last week, a slight increase over the 228,352 filed the previous week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.
That brings to more than 1.8 million the number of initial claims submitted to the agency since the middle of March, when the coronavirus pandemic began prompting Georgia businesses to shut down and lay off workers.
With some of those laid off employees now losing their jobs permanently, the labor department has developed a program that will allow employer-filed partial unemployment claims to be converted to individual claims. The Claims Conversion Program will begin next week.
“This program will allow employees who are permanently laid off the opportunity to instantly convert their claim to an individual one ensuring continued benefits without having to refile their claim,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said.
The new program will replace the past system that forced permanently laid off employees to file an individual unemployment claim, a process now taking more than 30 days.
The labor department has issued more than $2.4 billion in combined state and federal unemployment benefits during the last eight weeks. Of the 1,840,365 initial claims filed, 812,281 qualified to receive benefits and 575,000 Georgians received their first payment.
“That is more recipients than the past four years combined,” Butler said.
During the past eight weeks, the most initial unemployment claims — 493,600 — have come from the accommodation and food services sector. The health care and social assistance category is a distant second, with 221,519 claims, followed by retail trade with 211,032 claims.
According to data from the state Department of Public Health, 35,977 Georgians have now tested positive for the coronavirus, 6,374 have been hospitalized and 1,544 have died. Bartow County has had 382 cases, 128 hospitalizations and 35 deaths.
Meanwhile, Georgia education officials got their first look Thursday at budget cuts ahead for public schools and programs amid coronavirus but did not dive into specifics on whether staff furloughs or layoffs may be needed.
The Georgia Department of Education is facing across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.
Those cuts come as part of 14% spending reductions that all state agencies must propose to state lawmakers by May 20, as business closures and social distancing spurred by coronavirus look to put state revenues in a $3 billion to $4 billion hole.
The blow to some educational programs will be softened since the agency was already gearing up for 6% budget reductions Gov. Brian Kemp ordered last summer for the fiscal 2021 budget, officials said Thursday at a State Board of Education meeting.
To manage those previous cuts, education officials imposed a hiring freeze starting last October, restricted travel, clamped down on approving new vendor contracts and halted in-person staff training and professional development, among other measures.
But the previous cuts did not include the nearly $11.7 billion in funding the agency proposed to dole out for local school districts based on the number of students they enroll. Those funds take up by far the largest chunk of the state’s education spending and pay for bottom-line classroom programs and teacher salaries.
State officials expect to get more detailed rundowns next week from local school districts on how they plan to absorb the cuts. All aspects of their budgets — from personnel costs to contracts to facility rents and more — will be evaluated, officials said Thursday.
“These are incredibly challenging times and everybody’s got a lot of very, very important work to do the best we can for students, administrators and teachers throughout the state of Georgia,” said board Chairman Scott Sweeney.
Jason Downey, also a board member, said he has fielded calls from people worried about extended furloughs and shortened school weeks. He urged the board to communicate clearly with the public as decisions are made in the coming weeks on how the cuts will affect local schools.
“This is like [the 2008 recession] and in many ways could be much worse,” Downey said. “We just need to be sure that everyone is well informed.”
— Capitol Beat News contributed to this report.