ATLANTA – A settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Labor reached last week is in limbo after the state agency withdrew its consent to the agreement. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced last Thursday that it had reached a preliminary settlement with the labor department in a suit over unemployment claims during the pandemic. A group of Georgians experiencing delays in claims processing since the pandemic began in March 2020 took the agency to court. 

The settlement in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia could help jumpstart stalled unemployment determinations, payments, and appeals for Georgians still facing problems sorting out their claims.   

But the labor department withdrew its consent to the agreement last Friday, according to court filings.  

The state attorney general’s office – on behalf of the labor department – claimed that the Southern Poverty Law Center had already violated the terms of the settlement by posting a press release about the new agreement unilaterally.  

The settlement agreement required a joint press release, the department claimed in its motion to withdraw its consent.  

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler confirmed that the department had filed a motion to withdraw its consent to the agreement.  

Butler said the labor department had already instituted some of the improvements mentioned in the settlement agreement prior to the lawsuit, such as a claim status tracker.

“[The labor department] will continue to work with the plaintiffs’ attorneys to find common ground in this lawsuit, but not to the detriment of the men and women who have worked tirelessly for the past two years on issuing over $23 billion in unemployment insurance and pandemic relief benefits,” Butler added

It’s unclear what will happen to the settlement agreement for now.   

But if adopted as outlined in federal court filings, the agreement will focus on helping Georgians whose unemployment insurance cases are still stalled and on improving communication. 

One focus is on clearing backlogs of claimants who still need help resolving the 2020 and 2021 delays. The SPLC will submit a list of names to the labor department of people who are still having problems getting payment, and the agency will attempt to resolve the cases.   

The settlement also outlines steps the agency will take to clear out a backlog of appeals by the end of this year, including hiring a vendor to scan documents to allow for electronic processing and setting up an “automated validity determination system.”   

Another focus is on improving communication between the labor department and Georgians applying for unemployment insurance.  

One of the major complaints of Georgians facing difficulty getting unemployment insurance during the pandemic was finding someone to speak to at the agency. The labor department has already instituted a modernized telephone answering system, according to the preliminary agreement.   

Butler, who is named in the lawsuit, has decided not to run for re-election to the position.   

Republican Bruce Thompson will face Democrat William Boddie in the race for labor commissioner in November. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.