Initial jobless claims continue declining in Georgia

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell last week, mirroring a decline in claims at the national level.

Jobless Georgians filed 24,553 initial claims last week, down 888 from the week before, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Meanwhile, the department was being forced to deal with growing cases of fraud among the more than 60,000 Georgians thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago who have refiled for payments for a second year.

“A high number of claimants who have applied for their second year of benefits … have been found to possibly be committing fraud,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

“Couple those investigations with the majority of recently filed claims failing to verify their identity and we are left manually sifting through a myriad of fraudulent claims searching for the small percentage that are actually valid.”

Butler’s remarks came one day after Democrats in Georgia’s congressional delegation sent the commissioner a letter demanding that the labor department share its plan for addressing a claims backlog.

“While factors such as initial understaffing and limited technology may have prevented [the department] from processing claims, after a year there still remain extensive questions on how the agency plans to identify solutions to address the serious backlog that currently exists,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Buford.

“Georgians are lawfully entitled to the benefits they applied for. They are also entitled to transparency and accountability from their government. It’s time for answers – and solutions.”

The backlog of unemployment claims also drew a response from the Republican-controlled General Assembly during this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers passed a bill calling for the state to hire a chief labor officer to work with Butler on resolving the backlog.

However, Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed the measure, arguing it would have interfered with the commissioner’s constitutional authority as a statewide elected official and failed to delineate a way to resolve conflicts between the commissioner and chief labor officer.

The labor department has processed more than 4.8 million first-time unemployment claims since March of last year, more than during the last 10 years prior to the pandemic, while paying out more than $21.8 billion in state and federal jobless benefits.

The job sector accounting for the most initial claims last week was accommodation and food services with 5,140 claims. The administrative and support services sector was next with 2,033 claims, followed by manufacturing with 1,460.

More than 234,000 jobs are listed on the labor department’s EmployGeorgia website.

Claimants are being urged to register with EmployGeorgia to avoid interruptions in their payments. Video tutorials on how to register are available at

Isakson to help raise funds for neurocognitive diseases research

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

ATLANTA – Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson launched a nonprofit organization Wednesday to raise awareness and funding for neurocognitive diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and related dementia.

Isakson, R-Ga., announced his diagnosis with Parkinson’s in 2015 and retired from Congress at the end of 2019, midway through his third term in the Senate.

“Upon my retirement, I have rededicated my life to serving the people of Georgia and the United States by doing everything within my power to help those who are working toward a cure for Parkinson’s and other related neurocognitive issues,” Isakson said in a prepared statement.

“If our great nation continues to invest in public-private partnerships around biomedical research, we can improve and save the lives of millions of people. What a noble calling.”

Isakson was a leading advocate for public-private research initiatives throughout his career in real estate in Cobb County and later as a state legislator and member of Congress.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, he became a renowned health-care policy leader through his role in passing the most comprehensive veterans reform legislation in half a century.

The law, signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018, consolidated VA community care programs, allowing veterans to receive health care from private-sector doctors and hospitals. It also expanded VA benefits to veterans of all eras and set up a process to evaluate and reform VA facilities.

Before being elected to the Senate in 2004, Isakson served for five years in the U.S. House of Representatives, succeeding former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a congressional district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

The University of Georgia’s campaign to create the John H. “Johnny” Isakson Chair for Parkinson’s Research and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar position reached its goal of $4.5 million in private commitments earlier this year.

The Isakson Initiative has scheduled two fundraisers this fall, a golf tournament and a tribute to Isakson.

General Assembly kicks off hearings on crime

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers Wednesday launched an effort to examine what’s behind a rise in violent crime in metro Atlanta and consider potential solutions.

“There’s going to be politics in this,” state Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica, chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security, told committee members. “[But] this committee wants to dig down and look at the facts.”

Murders in the city of Atlanta are up 50% so far this year over the same period in 2020, while rapes have increased by 82%. The city also has also seen a surge in incidents of illegal street racing, prompting the General Assembly to pass legislation this year to criminalize organizing, promoting or participating in street races.

Gov. Brian Kemp this week committed up to $5 million of the Governor’s Emergency Fund to support the state Department of Public Safety’s efforts to bring crime in Atlanta under control.

Wednesday’s kickoff meeting was to begin developing a list of witnesses who will be called to testify during a series of hearings the committee plans to hold next month and in July.

Committee members suggested a wide array of potential witnesses, including representatives of police departments, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, business owners and residents of neighborhoods plagued with high crime rates.

Several lawmakers said the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the rise in crime by increasing poverty among Georgians who have lost their jobs only to suffer delays in receiving unemployment benefits from the state.

Others said more long-term causes are to blame, including the proliferation of mental illness and the easy access to firearms.

“A lot of crimes being committed are because of the gun laws we have on the books,” said Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah.

Rep. Clint Crowe, R-Jackson, said another factor behind the rise in crime is the growing number of vacancies in local police departments because discouraged officers are leaving the profession in droves.

“There are many, many open positions,” said Crowe, a former police officer. “But more important, we need to address the morale of the officers who are still there.”

“We’re putting the handcuffs on the wrong people,” Collins added. “We’ve handcuffed law enforcement for way too long. … They feel like they can’t do their jobs because leadership doesn’t have their backs.”

Several committee members pointed to rising crime rates in other major U.S. cities as evidence the problem isn’t limited to Atlanta. At the same time, they said, crime also is affecting communities in rural Georgia, including a rise in gang activity.

“We need to find out what it would take to put this ship back right in the water,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “If you don’t have strong public safety, you have chaos.”

First jury trial since COVID-19 ends in conviction for Albany man

ATLANTA – The post-pandemic era is underway in Georgia’s judicial system.

In the first jury trial conducted in the Middle District of Georgia since COVID-19 began to spread across Georgia more than a year ago, an Albany man has been found guilty of illegal possession of firearms by a prohibited person.

Eric Tollefson, 63, was wanted in Virginia after an indictment was returned against him in that state in a narcotics case. He was arrested in his home last November and found to be in possession of 11 firearms, including nine rifles, a pistol and a handgun.

At the time of his arrest, Tollefson already had been convicted of multiple felonies, including a previous conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“It is significant that a jury trial was successfully and safely accomplished in the Middle District of Georgia as the legal community works to return to pre-COVID, in-person gatherings,” said Peter D. Leary, the acting U.S. attorney in the district. “I want to commend everyone involved in the trial for helping to ensure that justice was fairly and safely delivered.”

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton imposed a moratorium on jury trials in March of last year. He tried to bring the trials back last October but suspended them again in December amid a surge of the virus.

In March of this year, Melton ordered jury trials to resume.

Tollefson faces a maximum of 10 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. He is due to be sentenced in August.

The FBI investigated the case with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Albany Police Department.

New broadband project to serve rural South Georgia

ATLANTA – Satilla Rural Electric Membership Corp. will partner with Kansas City-based Conexon Connect to offer high-speed broadband service to nine counties in southeastern Georgia.

The $150 million project will serve more than 57,000 rural homes and businesses in Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Brantley, Coffee, Jeff Davis, Pierce, Ware and Wayne counties.

The project is expected to be completed within four to five years, with service available to some customers during the first quarter of next year.

“The promise of high-speed internet is a game changer for the homes and businesses in our service area,” said Romeo Reyes, president and CEO of Satilla REMC. “Our members have waited patiently for access to broadband, now considered an essential service in today’s digital world.

“It’s vital that rural Georgia remain competitive and offer the same online choices to its residents – whether it’s working and learning from home, running a home-based business, visiting a doctor online, or shopping for goods and services.”

The lack of high-speed internet connectivity in rural Georgia, long a concern among the region’s political and business leaders, has had an even greater impact during the coronavirus pandemic. With schools closing their doors to avoid spreading the virus, students in homes without internet have been forced to go to great lengths to keep up with their lessons.

While a couple of Georgia EMCs have been providing broadband service for years, the business began to take off in earnest after the General Assembly passed legislation two years ago authorizing EMCs to attach broadband technology to utility poles.

Lawmakers followed that up last year with a bill giving the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) the task of deciding how much EMCs could charge telecom providers for pole attachments. The commission approved an offer by the EMCs to provide steep discounts to providers willing to offer broadband to unserved rural communities.

“EMCs have taken a leadership role and offered tangible solutions to provide high-speed internet to unserved areas,” said Commissioner Jason Shaw, who represents South Georgia on the PSC. “This partnership is the latest example of how EMCs are stepping up to serve rural Georgia and further improve the quality of life for their members.”

Conexon Connect has been an active player in extending broadband service to rural communities across Georgia. The company announced two projects last month that will expand broadband connectivity to EMC customers in Middle Georgia and 10 counties in eastern Georgia stretching from Laurens County to Washington County.

The company unveiled an even larger project last February to serve 80,000 utility customers in 18 rural counties.

Satilla REMC’s fiber-optic network will offer customers access to symmetrical Gigabit internet service – among the fastest and most robust in the nation. It also will provide reliable, clear phone service and improved power outage response times, better load balancing, and more efficient electricity delivery.