One of Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond's official duties is to compile the number of claims filed each month by laid off workers who are eligible to collect unemployment insurance benefits.
He is accustomed to seeing the numbers go up and down, but when the figures started coming in for December he was astonished: 128,625 workers filed first-time claims for jobless benefits, which was 54,000 more than the previous month and a whopping 174 percent increase over December 2007.
Thurmond's aides checked jobless numbers back to the early 1970s; as far as they could tell, it was the largest number of claims ever filed in Georgia for unemployment insurance in a single month.
"It was off the charts, really," said Thurmond, who described the tidal wave of unemployed workers as "stunning and sobering."
Clearly, the economic recession has hit our workforce like a hydrogen bomb, obliterating thousands of jobs, especially in the northern reaches of the state. The areas with the highest percentage increase in jobless claims are Rome, which was up 351 percent; Dalton, up 349 percent; and Gainesville, up 216 percent.
"We've never had this kind of unemployment in North Georgia," Thurmond said. "North Georgia is in crisis, relative to other parts of the state."
A major driving force has been the collapse of the carpet industry, which formerly had provided thousands of jobs for North Georgians.
"You make carpets for two things: houses and cars," Thurmond pointed out. "Nobody's buying houses and nobody's making cars."
Those jobless numbers should be scaring the daylights out of our political leaders, because they foretell a disaster in the making. But some of our leaders seem oblivious to the problem.
Gov. Sonny Perdue announced last week he's going to ask the General Assembly for authorization to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to finance state construction projects that would, he said, create 20,000 jobs.
That isn't going to be nearly enough. For one thing, Georgia already has the authority to issue about $1 billion worth of bonds for capital projects, but in this national recession nobody's buying them on the bond market. Also, Perdue talks about creating 20,000 jobs after 128,000 Georgians lost their jobs in December alone.
Right now, legislative leaders are arguing over side issues such as whether to enact a regional sales tax or a statewide sales tax to pay for new highways. Either way, that tax would not take effect until 2011 at the earliest; thousands of Georgians are losing their jobs and need help now.
Does anybody in a position of authority realize the seriousness of our situation? The bad news does seem to be sinking in among some of the key legislators.
Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, the veteran chairman of the Appropriations Committee, tried to warn his Senate colleagues that they've got a burdensome task ahead of them.
"We're facing some very difficult times," Hill said in a brief speech on Friday. "I don't want to be pessimistic; intermediate and long range, we're going to be OK. We just don't know where the bottom is. I don't know whether we've reached the end of our problems or not."
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, had a similar take.
"Things are bad in Georgia," Balfour said in a chat with reporters. "People don't understand how bad. We've got to figure out what we can do to turn things around."
There doesn't seem to be much that can be done at the state level, where legislators already have to cut more than $2 billion to meet their constitutional obligation for a balanced budget. State agencies will have to reduce their spending by 10 percent or more, including the Labor Department that tries to help out-of-work Georgians find jobs.
The only immediate hope may lie in Washington, D.C., where a new president took the oath of office this week with the mission of trying to get this financially stressed nation back on track.
Congressional Democrats have proposed an $825 billion stimulus plan that would provide more money for vital state services such as Medicaid, education and highway projects.
Perdue and the legislative leaders would be well advised to get down on their hands and knees and start begging the state's congressional delegation for help in getting some of that federal funding. It may be the only thing holding back financial ruin.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that that covers government and politics in Georgia.