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Georgia to cut off federal COVID-19 unemployment benefits
Georgia Department of Labor
The Georgia Department of Labor offers state residents the opportunity to apply for unemployment benefits when in need. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

ATLANTA – Georgia is joining a growing number of Republican-led states in cutting off federal unemployment benefits to incentivize out-of-work employees to return to their jobs.

Gov. Brian Kemp said in an interview on Thursday that the Georgia Department of Labor will stop issuing $300 weekly checks to jobless workers next month.

The governor’s remarks came three days after a coalition of statewide business organizations spearheaded by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce released an op-ed complaining companies can’t find workers for a growing list of job openings because unemployed Georgians are receiving more in state and federal jobless benefits than they could earn by going back to work.

“It is hurting our productivity not only in Georgia but across the country,” Kemp said. “We’ve got to get more people into the workforce.”

Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, a car dealer, supported the step.

“President Biden and the federal government have turned their back on local business owners desperately facing labor shortages by continuing to hand out taxpayer dollars in the form of needless unemployment benefits,” Miller said in a prepared statement.

But worker advocates panned Kemp’s move to end the higher benefit amount Thursday, saying it is untrue that the extra $300 each month has kept many jobless Georgians from seeking new employment.

Thousands of Georgians have already returned to work since the start of the pandemic last year, contrary to Kemp’s claim that too many workers are still sitting on the sidelines, said Ray Khalfani, a research associate for the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI).

Even so, Khalfani stressed many Georgians are still struggling to find new jobs or return to their old ones after the pandemic battered the job market and killed many service-focused businesses, particularly for low-income and predominantly Black communities in the state.

“Although some jobs are returning that doesn’t mean everybody who wants to return to work can,” Khalfani said at a news conference Thursday.

Among them is Elizabeth Knight, a Savannah resident who has received unemployment benefits since being furloughed from her job as an employment specialist in November 2020. Knight said she has struggled to find new work in her career field while also caring for her young son.

“This unemployment is giving me a little bit of time trying to find out what’s my direction,” Knight said Thursday.

Beyond ignoring difficulties for many people to find new work, GBPI’s Khalfani also warned Kemp’s decision to end the extra benefit could drive more Georgians into poverty and depress consumer spending that was partly bolstered by the increased federal benefit.

“When you pull that floor from people who need time to be able to get back to the workforce, that’s something that’s going to hurt a lot of Georgians, hundreds of thousands,” Khalfani said.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Biden signed into law last month extends the $300 weekly unemployment checks into September.

Responding to complaints that the checks are encouraging virus-wary Americans not to return to work, Biden said this week that anyone who refuses to take a suitable job will lose their unemployment benefits.

At least a dozen states with Republican governors have moved to cut off the federal benefits, including South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

Kemp said the state will stop issuing the weekly federal checks in mid to late June.