ATLANTA — When the pandemic hit, restaurants and retailers shut their doors temporarily laying off thousands of workers in metro Atlanta.
The Georgia Department of Labor paid out a historical amount of money, most of it getting to the people in need without a problem. But for those that weren’t so lucky, getting their problems fixed remains a time-consuming effort.
Just ask Billy. For him, a part-time job at a department store turned into a full-time headache.
“This has been extra stressful, extremely stressful,” Billy said, who asked us not to use his full name.
Billy started getting letters from the Department of Labor in February, demanding he returns $189 in unemployment benefits. It’s what the DOL refers to as an overpayment. But Billy says he was confused because he never filed a claim or received any money.
“I thought maybe it's fraud. So immediately I go to the website and try to find out what this is,” Billy said.
Turns out, when Billy got laid off from the store, the company reported it to the state without telling him. The DOL allows companies to expedite the process by entering in the data on behalf of the employee, as soon as they’re laid off. But the company is supposed to check first to make sure the employee doesn’t have any other forms of income that might make them ineligible.
That didn’t happen. Since Billy had a full-time job that was still active, once the DOL processed all of the information, it realized he didn’t actually qualify. Compounding the situation, Billy had recently moved. So the address reported to the DOL was old. Billy no longer lived there.
Billy shared with 11Alive the series of emails and faxes he sent trying to find out who could help him sort out the problem. But never received any response. He called the hotline, but couldn’t stay on hold for hours. Sometimes he says, the system wouldn’t let him in the cue or after a while, disconnected the call.
But the letters threatening legal action kept coming.
“It gets very complicated really quickly,” Commissioner Mark Butler said.
Butler says Billy’s case represents a perfect storm of problems and stresses that his kind of case is rare. He says the DOL has to determine if any fraud was involved, either on the part of Billy or someone else who may have accessed the debit card.
Butler says the good news, unemployment claims have dropped dramatically from the pandemic highs and employees within the DOL are starting to move back to their original positions. During the pandemic, people were pulled from almost every department to process unemployment claims.
He says there is still one area flooded with cases – appeals. These are people denied benefits or employers who are denying the eligibility of a former worker requesting funds. Butler says the pandemic expanded the list of people able to access unemployment. Now that those programs are over, there’s a lot of confusion when people find out they no longer qualify.
Butler says he’s doubled the number of workers processing appeals, still, he says an appeal being heard today was likely filed months ago.
“We’re backed up just like the judicial system is right now,” Butler said explaining how an appeals hearing is much like a court case with evidence and testimony.
Commissioner Butler couldn’t tell 11Alive how many appeals, overpayments, and fraud cases it has in its cue but says each one takes hours or even days to investigate.
Billy says that’s not the problem though. It’s communication. Regardless of the problem, he says people can’t get a response to fix it.
“Well, you know, I hear that still,” Butler said, “But I've actually been doing an experiment for the last month and a half… I've actually been calling the helpline just like everybody else, and I've gotten through every single day now. The wait times can be very long. My longest wait so far has been one hour and 20 minutes, but I have gotten through.”
11Alive Reveal investigator Rebecca Lindstrom decided to put it to the test as well. The first time she gave up after an hour because she needed her phone for other things. She opted to use the DOL’s call-back service. More than a week later, she’s yet to receive a call.
She tried again but accidentally disconnected the phone trying to move to another room. The third call, several days later, was a success. She reached an employee in about 17 minutes.
Lindstrom found it hard to be on hold for so long, since her phone was related to everything she needed to get done. Butler points out wait times on other customer service lines are just as long as companies struggle to hire enough employees.
The DOL does say response times for those who reach out via social media may be faster and it encourages those trying to file a claim to make sure they check their spam or junk folders for any communications that may be asking them to verify their ID or provide more information.
The DOL has also been working to put more self-help options online, like resolving problems with overpayments.
“You never actually have to talk to anybody. It's very easy to do,” Butler said.
But you do need the debit card to make it work. Billy finally received a replacement card. He tried to activate it, curious if any money was missing, but the card had already been blocked.
While the DOL told Billy the problem had been fixed, he wanted a document to prove it. A letter mailed before the problem was resolved arrived, threatening to send him to collections. So he wanted proof his account was clear.
“I don’t want my credit ruined. I don’t want anything like that to happen,” Billy said.
He received that letter, offering him a huge sigh of relief. But he wants to know why it took 10 months to get it.
“That was the worst part. Not being able to talk with someone to say, let’s work this out. What’s going on here,” he said.
11Alive reached out to the Department of Labor for a statement:
"We are implementing a phone and web system using artificial intelligence partnering with Cisco and Google to answer simple phone calls or questions and help with the routing of more complex issues. This system will be implemented in phases, but we hope it will be able to help our claimants find the information they need or escalate their issues to the right person."