This year, 483,605 Georgians have the same item on their Christmas wish list — they want a job.
That’s how many Georgians were unemployed for various reasons as of Oct. 31 of this year.
Currently, Georgia’s unemployment rate stands at 10.2 percent while the national rate is at 9 percent. Perhaps even more disturbing is that Georgia’s unemployment rate has exceeded the national rate for 50 consecutive months.
In fact, only eight states, including Washington, D.C., have a higher unemployment rate than Georgia. The highest unemployment rate among states is in Nevada, which has a 13.4 percent rate. North Dakota, with a 3.5 percent rate, has the nation’s lowest rate.
Georgia employers pay for unemployment insurance as a business cost through the State Unemployment Tax Act (SUTA) and the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA). For SUTA, liable employers pay an unemployment insurance (UI) tax on the first $8,500 earnings for each employee each year.
The UI tax rate in Georgia is one of the lowest in the Southeast and is based on calculations that include the history of unemployment insurance paid to former workers, growth of an employer’s payroll and the overall unemployment conditions for the state. The FUTA rate is a flat amount and currently is $21 per employee per year.
SUTA payments go into the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is where unemployment benefits are paid from. Four years ago, the fund’s balance was nearly $1.4 billion with no outstanding loans. With Georgia having so many people collecting unemployment benefits over the past four years, we have had to borrow money from the federal government to keep the fund solvent.
To date, Georgia has borrowed $720 million from the federal government to keep the fund solvent. The first interest payment on this loan was made in September and exceeded $21 million.
Because the interest on this loan cannot be paid from the unemployment tax or trust fund, it has to be paid from other state revenues. The interest payment made in September included roughly $18 million from general state revenues with the remainder coming from Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) sources.
With the state’s budget already stressed, a solution must be found to retire the $720 million loan — a figure that could grow larger if the unemployment rate does not decrease in the coming years and we have to borrow even more money from the federal government.
In an effort to keep the trust fund solvent, repay interest and eventually pay off the federal loan, a number of recommendations have been suggested:
• Implement a “waiting week” for drawing benefit payments. The average Georgian is unemployed 14 weeks. Most states wait until a person is unemployed at least a week before paying out benefits whereas Georgia benefits start the first week a person is unemployed. This would result in a projected annual savings of $35 million.
• Reduce the maximum weekly benefit amount from $330 to $300. Georgia has the third highest maximum weekly benefit amount in the Southeast region. The minimum weekly benefit is $44 and the average is $268.37. This proposal would affect the maximum benefit only and would result in a projected annual savings of $58 million.
• Reduce the number of state benefit weeks from 26 to 20. Several states, including South Carolina and Florida, have already adopted this strategy. Going from 26 to 20 weeks would result in an annual savings of $163 million while other decreases, i.e. 26 to 23 weeks, etc., would result in less savings.
• Increase an administrative assessment of 0.08 percent to 0.18 percent that GDOL currently collects from employers on their existing UI tax rates and that this be dedicated specifically for the payment of interest.
If we decide not to implement any of these proposals and do nothing toward repaying the loan, the FUTA will go up on our businesses in our state and will be applied toward retiring the loan. This scenario seems to be favored by GDOL.
Tough decisions, no doubt. Do we cut benefits for those who so desperately need them or do we burden our already strapped businesses with more taxes?
An easy fix would be more jobs for Georgians. Are you listening Santa Claus?
Carter can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Room 301-A, Atlanta, Ga., 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109.