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Georgia sees unemployment claims triple in virus lockdown
Dept of Labor.jpg
The Georgia Department of Labor office is located at 2756 Atlanta Highway in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

SAVANNAH — The number of Georgia workers seeking jobless benefits last week surged to more than 390,000, eclipsing the total number of unemployment claims the state saw in all of 2019, as efforts to contain the coronavirus batter the economy.

Figures released Thursday by the Georgia Department of Labor showed unemployment claims processed by the agency had nearly tripled compared to the previous week, when the pandemic had already driven claims to new record highs. 

"We basically did almost four times as many claims in one week than we did in the worst month of the recession" of 2008, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said.

The Georgia workers were among 6.6 million Americans who filed unemployment claims last week, and roughly 1-in-10 U.S. workers lost jobs in the past three weeks.

Gov. Brian Kemp pledged state labor officials are working to "get funds to hurting Georgians as quickly as possible." The agency said it paid out more than $41 million in benefits to more than 168,000 people last week.

"We will leave no stone unturned to assist Georgians in need and ultimately get them back to work," Kemp said in a statement.

Georgia has processed more than 536,000 unemployment claims in the past three weeks, according to state labor officials. Close to three-fourths of those were during the latest week that ended April 4. 

Butler said most of the workers filing claims last week had been employed in food services and travel lodging. 

Butler's agency said Georgia saw fewer than 292,000 unemployment claims in all of 2019.

Prior to the latest wave of layoffs fueled by coronavirus fears and restrictions imposed to slow its spread, the record for the most unemployment claims processed in Georgia during a single week had been 41,000 in January 2009.

Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus deaths in Georgia had more than doubled since a week earlier. And the number of confirmed infections were almost twice what the statewide total had been April 2.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported at least 369 deaths Thursday and more than 10,500 confirmed infections. More than 2,100 people statewide had been hospitalized because of the virus.

The rising numbers prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to extend his statewide shelter-at-home order, originally set to expire Monday, through the end of April. 

In largely rural southwest Georgia, hard-hit Dougherty County still led the state in deaths at 62. Even with only about 90,000 residents, Dougherty County is one of only two in Georgia with more than 1,000 confirmed infections — the other being Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.

A union representing 2,000 workers at a southwest Georgia chicken processing plant said they need improved protection from the virus. Two workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Camilla have died and "many are sick and in quarantine," the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said in a news release. The union said employees, many of them residents of hard-hit Dougherty County, were working side-by-side without masks as they remove bones from chicken.

Tyson Foods spokesman Worth Sparkman said Thursday the company won't comment on employees' heath, citing privacy concerns. Workers at Camilla and other locations have access to protective face coverings, Sparkman said in a statement. He said the Springdale, Arkansas-based company has been taking workers' temperatures before they enter its facilities and has increased deep cleaning at its plants, installed dividers between workstations and increased space between workers on the production floor by slowing production lines.

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