It is time to accept that government must play a more active role in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and limiting damage to our health and economy. The public already understands this. A recent Fox News poll revealed that 57% of registered voters would rather government “lend [them] a hand” right now, compared to the 36% who responded “leave me alone.” The White House also understands this. You are aware of the recent report that President Trump’s coronavirus task force “strongly recommends” a statewide mask mandate in Georgia.
We feel the urgent need for state-level action every day in our legislative offices. Our Caucus's COVID-19 Subcommittee has worked diligently since the global pandemic began to address the economic issues that Georgians are facing. In recent weeks, members like Rep. Kim Schofield, Rep. Sandra Scott, Rep. Viola Davis and many others have petitioned the Georgia Department of Labor to seek redress of the long delays and communication issues that too many constituents have faced on Unemployment Insurance claims. The economic issues that Georgians face have only been exacerbated since the beginning of the pandemic and will only get worse if there is no proper government intervention.
As one of our members, Rep. Erick Allen, put it recently: “Constituent emails/calls have shifted from ‘I can’t get my UI payments to . . . ‘I’ve got 2 weeks to get out of my house.’”Particularly now that federal CARES Act unemployment payments have expired, thousands of Georgians are facing severe and immediate economic instability. Current trends in unemployment and eviction are an immediate crisis of humanity that will have ripple effects well into Georgia’s future.
We understand the severity of the crisis has brought with it an increase in the rancor of our state politics. But we write this memorandum because we each owe our constituents the duty of persistent, good-faith advocacy for the best public policy. The sober reality is that there is no market-based or voluntary response that will adequately stem the tide of economic loss, displacement, and profound suffering resulting from the pandemic. We urge you to leverage every tool at your disposal to protect Georgians who need help.
I. OUR UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE SYSTEM IS BROKEN.
A. Georgians are desperate for relief.
Without question, the number one reason constituents contact our offices during the pandemic is to inquire about the status of their unemployment benefit applications. This has been the case for months now. Our offices have been advised that a wait of several weeks is a normal response time, although many of our constituents have waited much longer due to errors in the system and/or a lack of communication with GDOL staff.
The desperation and frustration of the Georgians who have contacted us are too extensive to recount here. Rep. Sandra Scott summarizes it well, “Many Georgians are facing evictions, car repossessions, utilities and water being shut off because their unemployment insurance benefits have not been received.” We believe that one of our highest moral imperatives in office during this moment is not to ignore the voices of these thousands of people.
B. GDOL is woefully understaffed.
According to GDOL’s own press release, from the week ending March 21 until August 8, 2020, GDOL has processed 3.3 million UI claims, or more than the last eight years combined. Our caucus has immense respect for the GDOL staff putting in long hours and working diligently to deliver unemployment assistance as quickly as possible to Georgians. But they should not be in this position. Nor should a single assistant to the GDOL Commissioner be tasked with personal follow-up and management for over 10,000 cases referred by legislative offices at a time.
One constituent in Rep. Josh McLaurin’s district wrote to him that applying for benefits through GDOL was “worse functioning than a third world country” and cited her experience growing up in a foreign country that was newly formed in the 1960s yet had a “more functional government.” It is plain that GDOL needs staffing to handle its backlog much more aggressively than at present. Georgia is presently failing the people.
To address the backlog and increase capacity overall, we recommend (1) aggressively hiring and training staff at GDOL and (2) to the extent allowed under federal and state law, a one-time preliminary grant of all pending UI applications in GDOL’s current backlog that have been pending for thirty (30) days or longer, subject to back-end review after funds are disbursed. Clearing the backlog in this way would provide relief urgently to those who need it, although the claims involved would be subject to review later once GDOL’s capacity to handle the workload has stabilized.
Going forward, we would further recommend that a claim be preliminarily granted if it has been pending for 30 days, subject to a back-end review after funds are disbursed. This would establish a 30 day “shot-clock” for the evaluation of claims. If a claim is flagged by GDOL during the “shot-clock” period, the “shot-clock” can be stayed by contacting the claimant in writing of the potential issue with the claim AND contacting the claimant by telephone upon written (email or letter) request of the claimant.
Finally, we would recommend that GDOL implement a policy of providing an acknowledgment of receipt within 24 to 48 hours of a communication from a constituent. This communication, which could be automated or handled by a dedicated staff member, would allow constituents to know that the communication has been received and that it will be reviewed in due course.
I. RENTERS ARE FACING AN EVICTION CRISIS.
A. With the expiration of protections for renters, Georgia faces an imminent eviction crisis.
From the beginning of the pandemic, Georgia’s housing experts have recommended emergency measures to stabilize housing. Keeping people in their homes is a moral priority on its own, but it is also critical to public health:
"Eviction, foreclosure and utility shutoffs make it impossible for self-quarantine of individuals with high risk factors such as advanced age, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Evictions and foreclosures during this emergency will contribute to overcrowding in homeless shelters, increase the number of families doubling up during the pandemic, expose high-risk individuals to the virus, and contribute to mortality and morbidity as well as the burden on our health care system." Renters previously had some protection from the CARES Act and the Georgia Supreme Court’s emergency orders, but those protections expired in July. One of our members, Rep. Kim Schofield, shed light on the dire circumstance, “We’ve heard the same things regurgitated over and over about the problems. People need solutions. It’s the 1st of the month. You have people getting ready to face evictions. People’s water and utilities are going to be disconnected and right now we’re trying to stabilize homes for virtual learning.” We now face an imminent crisis as tens of thousands of eviction cases that were on hold during the last few months have the green light to proceed:
"Using Census survey data, global consulting firm Stout Risius Ross recently estimated that over 40% of renters in Georgia could find themselves at risk of eviction due to an inability to pay rent during the pandemic. The data suggests Black and Hispanic communities will be disproportionately affected."
Some of the counties with the highest rates of severely burdened renters are in rural Georgia. Local governments are doing their best to provide assistance to organizations offering rent relief to those most urgently in need, but as with other areas of policy during the pandemic, those efforts are just one piece of a necessary response. Rental assistance is also critical to maintaining the supply of market-based lower-cost rental housing all over our state. Without such assistance many small landlords will be forced to abandon their properties or sell them to out-of-state private equity firms, which will likely result in the loss of affordable, low-cost rental units.
We recommend that you impose an immediate renewable sixty (60) day statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. This intervention is less disruptive to housing markets, to public health, and to the economy at large than allowing people out of work and clustered in vulnerable family units to be displaced haphazardly throughout the state.
We also recommend that you make the millions of dollars in Georgia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) reserve funds available for emergency housing assistance. These are flexible funds that can be used for a variety of purposes during the pandemic. Now that the final FY2021 budget has restored funds to the foster care system, there is no longer a need to use the $46 million in TANF reserve funds identified for that purpose. The best immediate use for those funds is housing assistance. Furthermore, we also recommend that the Department of Community Affairs (“DCA”) use and devote an available $60 million in Community Development Block Grant (“CDBG”) funds that it has from the CARES Act for the purpose of rental assistance. Finally, we would recommend that you ask philanthropic foundations and corporate charities to match these funds in rental assistance.
I. ECONOMIC RECOVERY DEPENDS ON THE PUBLIC HEALTH RESPONSE.
Overall, it should be clear by now that our economy will remain fundamentally unstable until our public health response is adequate. Other countries are back to work, school, and play with much fewer problems because they prioritized the public health response over any desire to reopen the economy on an arbitrary or forced timeline.
If the interventions recommended in this memorandum appear dramatic or contrary to your normal approach to public policy, that is because our extended public health crisis is dramatic and abnormal. The moment calls for these interventions. When the public health crisis abates, such dramatic interventions in housing markets will no longer be necessary or appropriate.
II. SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
The Georgia House Democratic Caucus calls on the Governor to:
· Aggressively hire and train new GDOL employees to deal with the crisis in timely disbursing unemployment insurance;
· Grant a one-time preliminary approval and disbursement of employment benefits based on applications in the current backlog that have been pending for thirty days or more, subject to back-end review;
· Establish a 30 day “shot-clock” for the DOL’s evaluation of claims;
· An immediate renewable 60 day statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures;
· Using TANF reserve funds and DCA’s available CDBG funds to provide emergency housing assistance;
· Encourage philanthropic foundations and corporate charities to match such funds in rental assistance; and
· Public health interventions—including a statewide mask mandate—which will facilitate more rapid economic recovery.
The Georgia House Democratic Caucus
/s/ Rep. Bob Trammell, Leader
/s/ Rep. William Boddie, Whip
/s/ Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, Chief Deputy Whip
/s/ Rep. Pat Gardner, Secretary
/s/ Rep. Calvin Smyre, Chairman Emeritus /s/ Rep. Mary Frances Williams /s/ Rep. Teri Anulewicz /s/ Rep. Mary Robichaux
/s/ Rep. Angelika Kausche /s/ Rep. Josh McLaurin /s/ Rep. Sheila Jones
/s/ Rep. Park Cannon
/s/ Rep. Marie Metze
/s/ Rep. Able Mable Thomas
/s/ Rep. David Dreyer
/s/ Rep. Kim Schofield
/s/ Rep. Sharon Beasley - Teague
/s/ Rep. Valencia Stovall
/s/ Rep. Sandra Scott
/s/ Rep. Mike Glanton
/s/ Rep. Rhonda Burnough
/s/ Rep. Demetrius Douglas
/s/ Rep. Matthew Wilson
/s/ Rep. Michele Henson
/s/ Rep. Karla Drenner
/s/ Rep. Viola Davis
/s/ Rep. Bee Nguyen
/s/ Rep. Doreen Carter
/s/ Rep. Brenda Lopez
/s/ Rep. Dewey McClain
/s/ Rep. Pam Dickerson
/s/ Rep. Spencer Frye
/s/ Rep. Gloria Frazier
/s/ Rep. CaMia Hopson
/s/ Rep. Craig Gordon