Georgia legislators approved bills that reduce the duration of unemployment benefits from a maximum of 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 to 20 weeks. Nichols, an Augusta resident, lost her job as a medical claims analyst a few months ago when her work was outsourced, and she has been waiting until her severance ends to file for unemployment.
She’s hoping she can find a new job soon so that she won’t have to contend with the new maximums. If she had been able to apply for jobless benefits before July 1, she would have been grandfathered into the old system and the old maximum of 26 weeks.
“I’m just hoping I have found a job by the time my severance is up,” she said while standing in line at the Augusta employment office.
The Georgia action follows a similar move in South Carolina last year when legislators cut benefits from 26 to 20 weeks. The decrease went into effect June 1 in South Carolina.
Georgia estimates it will save $160 million in unemployment benefits in 2013 by cutting the weeks, and South Carolina says it will save $106.5 million annually from these cuts.
Nichols said she thinks there should be a better way for the state to save money.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of avenues they could take, they just squander money,” she said. “If you ask me, there’s holes in the system.”
Nichols said she isn’t worried about finding a job, but she will probably have to relocate to Atlanta or Columbia. The extra six weeks of unemployment would have given Nichols time to find a job she was happy with, but now she thinks she will have to take the first job she finds.
“That extra time does matter,” she said.
Felicia Jamison has been looking for a job without success since she lost hers in November 2010, and is on her last week of unemployment benefits. She has filed for all three unemployment extensions, receiving unemployment for more than the past year.
She said she doesn’t understand why both states’ lawmakers want to cut unemployment assistance when the job market is still so competitive. She can attest to the importance of having a few more weeks of benefits. Unemployment is less than she was used to earning, but anything helps meet needs while she is looking for another job, she said.
“It makes a whole lot of difference for someone who’s depending on that money to pay their bills,” she said.
Although legislators said the benefits decrease will help to pay down state debt, Jamison believes cutting unemployment will just drive job seekers to file for other government assistance such as food stamps.
“Taking those weeks away just causes people to turn to other programs,” she said. “I just don’t see where it makes a big difference to cut it down.”
Clare Richie, a senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the state spending crisis came after years of decreasing employers’ responsibilities to pay into the state unemployment trust fund. The state borrowed $746.8 million from the federal government to pay out jobless claims when unemployment spiked during the height of the recession.
“We were not prepared for the recession,” she said. “When the recession hit, there simply wasn’t enough in the fund.”
The federal loan needs to be paid off, Richie said, but the answer is to bring employer contributions up and not penalize job seekers. In this past legislative session, raising employer contributions did not sit well with the majority, she said.
“That wasn’t politically palatable, so it didn’t happen,” Richie said.
Brenda Brown, the director of unemployment insurance for the Georgia Department of Labor, said the effects of the decrease in Georgia remain to be seen.
“We haven’t really had any complaints yet,” she said.
Georgia job seekers will have 14 to 20 weeks of unemployment benefits, she said, calculated on a sliding scale dependent on the state unemployment rate. The higher the unemployment rate, the longer benefits will be made available. Georgia residents filing for unemployment right now can receive benefits for a maximum of 19 weeks, Brown said.
Unemployment benefits are calculated two times every year, in October and in April. Once an individual files for unemployment, the length of time benefits will be provided is locked in, despite any adjustments the next October or April.
All laws can be changed, she said, but the 20-week maximum is likely to be here for a while.
“I just don’t see it changing any time soon,” she said.
Angela Collins, a regional workforce development manager for Goodwill’s Job Connection, has worked with Jamison over the past few months in her search for a job. The fact that highly educated job seekers such as Jamison can’t find a job after years of searching is proof the job market has not recovered, she said, but she understands legislators’ desire to save money.
“We have people with higher education applying for entry-level positions,” she said. “I feel like this is going to have an effect because the market has still not really recuperated.”
There are some job seekers who wait until the last few weeks to start their job search, Collins said, but there are just as many who have been tackling their search for work like a full-time job. The decrease in benefits may encourage some to start looking sooner, she said, but there are plenty of job seekers who need those six weeks to find employment.
“The state department has to do what it has to do in regards to unemployment and their budget,” she said. “What we have to do is continue to be here for those who are looking for work.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.