New Federal and State Changes to Unemployment Benefits

In light of the public health crisis occasioned by COVID-19, the Georgia Department of Labor (“GDOL”) issued emergency rules effective March 19, 2020 amending the availability of certain unemployment benefits.  As the severity of the situation has escalated, the GDOL modified the previous emergency rules and issued even more new ones on March 26, 2020.  The changes contain some substantial modifications and clarifications, which are summarized below.

First, part time employees are now expressly included as persons on whose behalf an employer must file a partial unemployment claim with respect to any week in which the worker’s hours are reduced due to a full or partial company shut down occasioned by COVID-19. Previously, the rule did not address part time employees.

Second, in a move to expand the availability of benefits to new groups of people, the emergency rules clarify that “certain individuals unable to work due to the COVID-19 public health emergency who have an expectation of returning to work when the emergency ceases shall be considered involuntarily unemployed through no fault of their own.” The “certain individuals” to whom this expanded coverage applies include those who: are quarantined or self-quarantined on the advice of a licensed medical professional; are sixty years old or older; have a recognized medical condition making that individual particularly susceptible to COVID-19; who are caregivers and reside with someone sixty or older, or someone who has a condition making that person particularly susceptible to the virus; or are custodial parents or legal guardians of minors whose schools are closed due to COVID-19 and who are unable to secure childcare.  Notably, this list is not meant to be exhaustive, such that employees unable to work due to other COVID-19 related reasons not expressly listed in the rule could still be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Third, in a potential boon for employers, the Georgia Department of Labor has clarified that the Commissioner may choose not to charge an employer’s account for partial unemployment benefits paid due to COVID-19.  However, the decision of whether to charge an employer’s account apparently rests in the Commissioner’s discretion and the exact scope of this rule is unclear.

Fourth, the emergency rules extend the maximum term of the benefits from twenty weeks to twenty-six.

Fifth, to make the benefits more generous, the GDOL will not count the first $300 of earnings per week against the available benefits.

Over and above the new rules implemented by the GDOL, the CARES Act also substantially expands unemployment benefits, both by creating a new temporary federal unemployment program, and by offering supplemental benefits to participating state programs.  The CARES Act implemented the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which makes unemployment benefits available to those who have exhausted state resources and to those who may otherwise be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, such as independent contractors. Applicants for the federal benefits must certify that they have used up or are ineligible for other traditional unemployment resources, and that they are unable to work due to one of a variety of COVID-19-related reasons.  Benefits under this federal plan are capped at 39 weeks.  In addition to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the CARES Act supplements the benefits offered through state programs, including funding the first week’s benefits (for states like Georgia that require a one week waiting period), adding up to $600 dollars in weekly benefits, and extending the available period of state benefits.

If you have any questions about any aspect of the fast-paced developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact a member of AGG’s Employment Law Team.

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