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Bill to continue COVID-19 unemployment benefits in Georgia passes General Assembly
COVID-19 Confirmation in NCSS

The General Assembly passed legislation Wednesday to keep in place certain unemployment benefits that were expanded in Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Final passage of Senate Bill 408, by Sen. Brian Strickland, who represents part of Newton County, comes as Georgia continues grappling with the economic fallout from coronavirus, which prompted roughly 2 million people to file unemployment claims and shot the state’s jobless rate up to nearly 12% in April.

Amid the pandemic, those who qualified for unemployment benefits were granted leeway to collect payments for up to 26 weeks instead of the usual 14 weeks, and enjoyed a boost in the allowance rate that let them keep up to $300 per week in wages earned – instead of the usual $50 – on top of their benefits.

Those expanded benefits are set to expire once Gov. Brian Kemp ends the state’s public health emergency, which currently runs through June.

“Those provisions are temporary and they will end,” Jeffrey Babcock, the labor department’s legal services manager, told state lawmakers last week.

But language added to the bill by Strickland, R-McDonough, would let the state labor commissioner keep those expanded benefits largely in place, depending on the state’s jobless rate.

“The purpose of this bill is to get some more permanence to that,” Babcock said.

The number of weeks would increase incrementally from 14 weeks when the state’s jobless rate is 4.5% up to 26 weeks when the jobless rate is 10% or higher. The labor commissioner would also have authority to set the weekly deductible threshold at between $50 and $300.

The bill would also grant the labor commissioner powers during a statewide governor-declared emergency to modify the maximum benefit amount and relax rules on claims processing, unemployment insurance tax filing deadlines and work-search reporting. 

And the bill would allow the labor commissioner to establish a work-sharing program that lets employers avoid layoffs by reducing their employees’ work hours but giving them prorated unemployment benefits.

The bill passed out of the state Senate by a 49-1 vote Wednesday with Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, voting against. It now heads to Kemp’s desk for his signature. 

Originally, Strickland’s bill only proposed to allow employees to continue using earned sick leave for family care beyond July 1, when that provision in state law is set to expire. 

Moves to keep unemployment benefits in place also come as lawmakers mull legislation aimed at shielding businesses and hospitals from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus.