The new head of the Georgia Department of Labor vowed Wednesday to overhaul an agency deluged with unemployment claims during the pandemic that resulted in a barrage of complaints over processing delays.
“The Department of Labor has had an image problem,” newly elected Commissioner of Labor Bruce Thompson told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees just six days after taking the oath of office. “We seek to be able to change that.”
Thompson is beginning his new job just two weeks after the Georgia Office of Inspector General reported nearly 300 state employees erroneously received unemployment benefits totaling $6.7 million during the last two pandemic years, averaging $23,700 per worker.
The new commissioner said he has just hired a former prosecutor to get to the bottom of allegations of fraud within the agency as well as a legislative liaison to help Georgia lawmakers handle complaints they have been getting from constituents whose unemployment claims have been delayed.
Thompson pledged to eliminate the department’s backlog of about 59,000 pending unemployment claims by August.
Thompson said he also has found many of the agency’s career centers across the state in a state of disrepair, including extensive water damage.
“We’ve seen all kinds of evidence of neglect,” he said. “That stops now.”
Thompson also complained of recent reductions that cut the agency’s budget by about 70%. As a result, five career centers have been closed and six more are due to be shut down, he said.
One source of funding the labor department has relied upon has gone away, Thompson said. An administrative fee the agency charges businesses, which collected $10.6 million during the last fiscal year, was allowed to expire last year. Thompson said he will ask the General Assembly to reinstate the fee.
Thompson’s reform plans drew bipartisan support from lawmakers who heard his presentation Wednesday.
“I agree with your sense of urgency … after what we have been through with this department and what our constituents have been through,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.
Also on Wednesday, state Insurance Commissioner John King told lawmakers his top priority for this year will be rolling back auto insurance rates in the state, which he said are unacceptably high.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.