After 1,600 emails, woman said she was approved -- and denied -- by DOL for unemployment

ATLANTA — Many families are still struggling in our community with jobs lost during the pandemic. Many are banking on unemployment benefits to get by.

But for some, the checks aren’t coming, even after unemployment is approved.

Channel 2 anchor Sophia Choi investigated to try and clear up the confusion.

Choi started hearing from people that received two letters in the mail from the Georgia Department of Labor. One letter was an approval, while the other was a denial of benefits.

It’s all leading to a lot of confusion and frustration.

“I’m not even the type to just cry, but I feel so helpless,” Newton County resident Latoya Harris told Choi.

Harris started getting unemployment insurance in May 2020 after a serious car accident left her unable to stand for more than 8 hours. They never found the other driver.

“It’s just like a cocktail of disaster,” Harris said.

Her unemployment checks stopped in November.

“Although I was approved until next year,” Harris said.

So Harris refiled and has been waiting four long months.

“It’s scary because you don’t know how you’re going to survive. And I’m not making it right now,” Harris tearfully told Choi.

With an eviction notice and no food or heat in the house, Harris said she’s looking for work while trying to survive.

“We’re literally having to take our life day by day, and do the best that we can. We go to a food pantry. We’re having to do whatever we can to try to survive,” Harris said.

That includes following up with the Labor Department by sending more than 1,600 emails trying to get an update.

“Sixteen hundred emails and no one ever responded,” Harris said.

Until February, when she got two letters.

“I got an approval and a denial in like 24 hours of each other,” Harris said.

The labor commissioner said the computer system marked her message as spam, so no one received her emails. Then she was denied because of a doctor’s note she submitted.

“The letter from her physician actually disqualifies her for unemployment. By law, you cannot get unemployment if you are not ready and available for work,” Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told Choi.

“A lot of us, it’s just not our fault,” Harris said.

Butler said unemployment can be confusing, even more so now.

“What has made it even more complicated is all the additional programs, unemployment programs that have been created over the last eight to nine months started with the CARES Act,” Butler said.

Choi got some answers of common misunderstandings directly from the labor commissioner.

How long do benefits last, once approved?

“(What) we are seeing is a lot of confusion being called out in social media, is that your claim is good for one year from when you apply,” Butler said.

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Harris’ case proves you also need to stay qualified.

“We’re seeing a lot of confusion where people are thinking that because they’ve become disabled, they can get unemployment, that is not true,” Butler said.

How is severance pay calculated?

“It doesn’t preclude you from getting unemployment, but it will delay you getting unemployment depending on how much severance that you get, because technically, you are still getting paid by your employer,” Butler said.

What happens if you find a job?

“We see that they’ve been working for the last six months, and they haven’t reported any income to us, but yet collecting unemployment effects. That’s fraud,” Butler said.

Butler said they flag a lot of the cases by cross-checking what you divulge and what an employer puts on a quarterly wage report. If you don’t agree with a denial, you can appeal — and that’s exactly what Latoya Harris is doing.

“I’m not a person that has to ask for help. I am a person that believes in helping myself and helping others. They have to have some form of empathy for what people are going through, I am not the only person going through this,” Harris said.

Unfortunately, the labor commissioner said an appeal can take some time.

Harris said she is also applying for disability, but that too can take some time. She can work, she just can’t stand longer than eight hours. So she’s still out there, looking for work.

The good news is the labor department says more jobs are opening up.