ATLANTA — First-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell by 1,826 last week, but they’re about to drop much more dramatically as the state cuts off benefits jobless Georgians have been getting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Initial claims totaled 20,698 last week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Most of those claims are about to go away entirely. Beginning Saturday, Georgia will no longer participate in federal unemployment insurance programs Congress has enacted since COVID-19 struck the nation in March of last year. That’s going to cut off benefits to about 223,000 claimants, according to the labor department.

“After 66 weeks of benefits during the pandemic and the release of $22.5 billion, we look forward to refocusing our organization on reemployment and helping claimants find a career path that will provide the stability and support necessary to provide for their families,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

But critics say the state is being premature in cutting off benefits the Biden administration plans to continue into September. The move, announced by Gov. Brian Kemp last month, means nearly two-thirds of Georgians who have been receiving unemployment benefits will be cut off, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

“The (federal) pandemic unemployment programs continue to be a critical lifeline for millions of people looking for work in a changed economy still jolted by the pandemic,” NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon said. “The decision by Governor Kemp and Labor Commissioner Butler to abruptly end these family-sustaining payments is callous and downright cruel.”

The labor department has processed more than 4.9 million initial unemployment claims since March of last year, more than during the last decade prior to the pandemic.

Kemp and Butler have argued there are plenty of good-paying jobs begging for someone to fill them. Georgia businesses have complained they can’t find enough workers because the federal benefits have been encouraging unemployed Georgians to stay out of the workforce.

Opponents of the looming benefits cutoff say legitimate reasons keeping people at home include difficulties finding child care and safety concerns over returning to work in a state where so many have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

More than 221,000 jobs are listed on EmployGeorgia, the labor department’s website. Claimants receive access to job listings, support to upload up to five searchable resumes, job search assistance, career counseling, skills testing, job fair information and job training services.

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