Jobless benefits expiring for almost 400,000 unemployed Georgians

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Nearly 400,000 unemployed Georgians who filed claims with the state Department of Labor last year at this time are going to have refile with the agency to continue receiving benefits.

The coronavirus pandemic began to gather serious momentum in Georgia at this time a year ago, forcing businesses to close their doors and lay off employees. The initial wave of jobless Georgians who filed claims back then are bumping up against a 52-week benefit limit.

“This was the week last year where we saw the biggest spike in UI (Unemployment Insurance) claims,” state Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday. “The increase in claims this year is not as severe as we encountered in 2020, but the numbers are still substantially elevated from claims numbers prior to the pandemic.”

While the number of unemployed Georgians filing first-time claims last week declined by 5,659 from the previous week, the labor department received 33,623 initial claims during the week.

The agency has processed more than 4.6 million unemployment claims since COVID-19 first took hold in Georgia in March of last year, more than during the last nine years combined prior to the pandemic.

The job sector accounting for the most claims in Georgia last week by far was accommodation and food services with 12,202 claims. The administrative and support services job sector was next with 3,428 claims, followed by manufacturing with 2,691.

Butler said unemployed Georgians who need to refile claims because they have reached the end of the 52-week period allowed for benefits must report any additional work history, including temporary, part-time or self-employment work.

The labor department has posted more than 226,000 job openings online at https://employgeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The agency offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume and assisting with other reemployment needs.

Georgia Tech finishes tops among Georgia universities for value

A new study found Georgia Tech the best value among the state’s public and private universities.

ATLANTA – Georgia Tech provides the best value among the Peach State’s public and private universities, according to a new study by a New York-based financial technology company.

The Atlanta school scored a college education value index of 83.71, well above the second-highest score of 57.90 posted by the University of Georgia, the report by SmartAsset found.

The scores were based on factors including student living and tuition costs, student retention rates, the average starting salary of graduates and the availability of scholarships and grants.

The main category that separated Georgia Tech from the rest of the pack was the average starting salary of $74,500 for Tech graduates.

Closest to that figure was $63,500, the average starting salary for graduates of Atlanta’s Emory University. However, Emory’s tuition of $51,306 per year topped the list, accounting for the school placing third on the SmartAsset list.

The University of Georgia’s second-place showing among the 10 schools listed in the report was attributable to the average starting salary for UGA graduates – $55,700, behind only Georgia Tech and Emory – combined with its reasonable tuition and student living costs.

Not surprisingly, the private universities listed – Emory, Oglethorpe University and Mercer University – charge the highest tuitions. As a result, they also offer the largest scholarships and grants, partly offsetting the costs of attending those schools.

Besides Georgia Tech and UGA, Georgia State University scored highest among the public universities, placing fourth on the list just ahead of Oglethorpe.

The full report can be found at Student Loan Calculator (2021) – Estimate Your Loan Repayment | SmartAsset.com

Georgia Democrats discuss Biden’s infrastructure plan

ATLANTA – President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would provide an overdue fix to deteriorating highways while ramping up investment in modern transit including high-speed rail, three members of Georgia’s congressional delegation said Wednesday.

Freshman Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Suwanee and Nikema Williams of Atlanta and veteran Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Stone Mountain addressed an online roundtable of state and regional transportation agency heads and metro-Atlanta local elected officials. All three are members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The bill, which Biden unveiled last week, calls for repairing and upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems, but would also include other infrastructure needs like broadband, water and wastewater projects.

It would move well past rebuilding the interstate highway system begun by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the transportation committee’s chairman, who addressed the group at the start of the discussion.

“We’re not doing Eisenhower 8.0,” he said. “We’re moving into the 21st century with our infrastructure.”

DeFazio said the legislation would create lots of good paying union jobs, more than enough to make up for the jobs lost when Biden canceled the controversial Keystone Pipeline.

In fact, DeFazio cited a report from Moody’s Investors Service that predicted a return of $1.50 for every $1 the federal government spends on infrastructure improvements.

The bill faces an uphill battle in Congress. While progressive Democrats are urging an even bigger infrastructure package, Republicans are digging in to oppose the legislation because it would be paid for with higher taxes on corporations.

Johnson said the U.S. can’t afford not to spend the money.

“We should not be 13th in the world investing in our infrastructure,” he said. “We have to have a government willing to make the initial investments.”

Williams said her vision for transportation is centered around providing equity by revitalizing transit stations in low-income communities to attract economic development.

MARTA is doing just that with a $50 million upgrade of the Bankhead rail station in conjunction with a planned 90-acre Microsoft campus. The fiscal 2022 state budget the General Assembly adopted last week put $6 million toward the project.

“We’re really aligned with the initiative the [House] committee and the president are putting together,” said Jeff Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO.

Bourdeaux said chronic traffic congestion in metro Atlanta is hurting economic development in the region. More transit options would go a long way toward solving the problem, she said.

“We do have to widen roads,” Bourdeaux said. “[But] all of us are interested in transit and new ways to do things.”

Georgia to ease COVID-19 distancing, gathering restrictions amid vaccine push

Gov. Brian Kemp announced four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are set to open in Georgia on Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to roll back longstanding COVID-19 distancing restrictions in Georgia amid a mix of relief and concern from local businesses and public-health experts.

Starting Thursday, Georgia’s months-long ban on gatherings of more than 50 people in one place will be lifted per orders from the governor, who has steadily moved to ease safety measures imposed since the virus swept the state in March last year.

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement. Movie-goers can sit 3 feet from each other in indoor theaters. A shelter-in-place order for nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities also will be lifted.

Additionally, police officers will be barred from shutting down businesses that refuse to comply with the new scaled-back distancing and sanitization rules. A partial ban on mask mandates in Georgia cities and counties will also remain in effect.

Kemp’s decision comes as more and more Georgians receive their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was made available to everyone age 16 and older starting late last month.

Nearly 4.3 million vaccines have been administered in Georgia as of Tuesday, marking more than 2.8 million people who have received at least one of the needed two doses for most vaccines. More than 1.5 million Georgians are now fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Public Health data.

“We continue to make steady progress in our vaccine administration here in Georgia,” Kemp said this week. “The life-saving COVID-19 vaccine is our key back to normal, and with all Georgians ages 16 and over now eligible to receive the shot, we are well on our way as we head into spring and summer.”

The rollback set for Thursday drew praise from local business leaders including restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year. Roughly 20% of Georgia’s restaurants remain closed after more than half shut down temporarily in the pandemic’s early days, said Karen Bremer, president of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

Bremer noted the 6-foot distancing rule has limited restaurants to about 60% of capacity, complicating dine-in services as many restaurants turned to curbside and delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants will still have leeway to decide whether to stick with the stricter safety measures once the rollback kicks in, she said.

“Slowly but surely, we have been able to expand to a more reasonable level,” Bremer said. “I’m sure that there will be many that still require the face coverings for people to come into their businesses. It’s their prerogative as a business to do that.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also backed Kemp’s rollback decision, noting local businesses “should continue to follow safety protocols and prioritize the health of customers and employees,” said Chris Clark, the chamber’s president and CEO.

However, some public-health experts have urged Kemp to pump the brakes on loosening COVID-19 restrictions until more Georgians become fully vaccinated in the next month or so.

“Too soon, way too soon,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset last year. He pushed for waiting until at least the end of this month to start relaxing restrictions.

His stance was echoed by Isaac Fung, an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. Georgia should hold off on fully reopening until about three-fourths of all residents have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity, he said.

In the meantime, restaurants can take steps like install plexiglass screens between customers and require masks to reduce risks of transmission, particularly as more infectious mutations of the virus take root in Georgia, Fung said.

“I would highly recommend Georgians to put on face masks if they speak, especially in public or when they’re meeting with friends,” Fung said. “I understand why they want that to be relaxed … but people should remain vigilant. … The pathway forward is to get as many people fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at myvaccinegeorgia.com even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

As more Georgians are vaccinated, Kemp said he will not seek to require so-called “vaccine passports” for people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to travel, work or frequent businesses.

“While the development of multiple safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a scientific miracle, the decision to receive the vaccine should be left up to each individual,” Kemp said.

More than 857,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 209,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,761 Georgians.

Georgia candidates line up early for key 2022 elections

Last year’s heated election cycle in Georgia has already drawn early candidates — including primary challengers — for 2022 races in which Republicans are looking to fend off strong Democratic campaigns for key statewide seats. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The first wave of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for key Georgia elective offices including lieutenant governor and secretary of state amid bitter partisan battles over the state’s new election law.

With roughly 19 months until the November 2022 general election, several Democratic contenders are vying for top seats long held by Republicans, while the state’s incumbent GOP elections chief has already drawn a tough primary challenge after last year’s charged election cycle.

In recent weeks, Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna announced his candidacy against Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who also could draw a hardline GOP primary opponent over his appeal to the state’s moderate Republicans following last year’s election losses.

That’s the case for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican seeking reelection against fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Greensboro as well as former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

A four-term congressman, Hice has lobbed many of same attacks over the party’s 2020 election losses that former President Donald Trump used to pummel Raffensperger, who repeatedly rejected Trump’s claims of voter fraud. Trump has already endorsed Hice.

“Every Georgian, in fact every American, has the right to be outraged by the actions and, simultaneously, the inaction of our secretary of state,” Hice said in his March 22 announcement.

“At the end of the day, I think people will figure out that we did follow the law,” Raffensperger said in a March 30 interview. “We’ll make sure we have fair and honest elections in Georgia.”

Democrat Manswell Peterson, a U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer from Albany, also announced last week he is running for secretary of state against Raffensperger.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp has yet to draw an opponent from his own party after absorbing blows from Trump, who lost to current President Joe Biden by a slim margin in the first of what is expected to be many tight statewide elections over the next decade.

But Republicans are already gearing up to mark 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as GOP public-enemy No. 1 after she helped galvanize Georgia Democrats to historic wins in last year’s presidential and U.S. Senate races.

Abrams is widely expected to run against Kemp again but has not officially declared her candidacy. If she does, Abrams will be on the Democratic ticket with recently elected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is staring down another brutal campaign in 2022 after winning the final two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.

Georgia’s controversial election bill that Kemp signed into law last month looks to figure prominently in the upcoming races, with Democrats and Republicans sparring over whether the changes worsen or improve voter access, the role of Trump’s fraud claims and local business boycotts.

“The attack on our state is the direct result of repeated lies from Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams about a bill that expands access to the ballot box and ensures the integrity of our elections,” Kemp said last week.

“If the Georgia GOP cared about Georgia’s economy and the working Georgians that keep our state going, they wouldn’t have tried to steal their votes,” said Democratic Party of Georgia spokeswoman Maggie Chambers in response.

Also up for reelection next year is Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican and Trump ally. He has so far drawn a challenge from Democrat Charlie Bailey, an Atlanta attorney and former prosecutor who lost to Carr in 2018.

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta attorney, has been floated as a possible candidate to run against Carr. She has not said whether she’ll launch a 2022 campaign but told lawmakers during debate on a prosecutor-oversight bill she opposed that it “just may mean we may need a new [attorney general].”

Additionally, Democratic state Rep. William Boddie of East Point announced this week he’ll run against Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, whose office has faced backlash over slow turnaround times for processing unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.