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State may seek federal jobs help
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Unemployment rates and UI trust funds in the Southeast
State        Unemployment rate    Insured Unemployment rate    UI recipients    Trust fund loan
Georgia             10.1                3.71                                    147,923                —
Alabama            10.7               3.39                                      63,004            $73.6M
Florida              11.0                3.79                                    280,725            $597.5M
North Carolina    10.8                4.53                                    179,164            $1.323B
South Carolina    11.6                4.5                                       82,053            $610.7M

As if rising unemployment rates were not enough, Commissioner Michael Thurmond of the Georgia Department of Labor announced this week that the state would likely have to seek federal assistance to meet its unemployment insurance obligations as soon as next month.  While those receiving unemployment checks may breathe a sigh of relief, this could mean higher payroll taxes for Georgia businesses.

Unemployment insurance — Important, but maybe more than you want to know
Unemployment insurance (UI) was established during the Great Depression by the Social Security Act of 1935. Today, UI currently runs through a joint federal and state program. Each state operates its own UI Trust Fund, which is used to pay unemployment checks to insured recipients. In Georgia, this trust fund is supported through payroll taxes from employers. Other states, such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, also collect contributions from employees, though Georgia does not.  

These payroll taxes include two components, a federal component and a state component. The federal component taxes 0.8 percent of the first $7,000 earned by an eligible employee, which is used to cover administrative costs for both the federal and state programs.  
Each state is then allowed to set its own taxable wage base, which must be more than the $7,000 federal base. Georgia’s taxable wage base is set at $8,500, one of the lowest in the nation. That means that in 2008, of the $138.8 billion paid in wages by covered employers, only $33 billion, or 24 percent, was taxable.  

For Georgia employers, the tax rate on the wage base is set through an experience rating. Employers that have paid more in taxes than their chargeable unemployment claims will have lower rates than those employers who have paid in less than their chargeable unemployment claims.  New employers are charged a rate of 2.7 percent for the first 36 months, and then are eligible for a rate calculation. Employers with a positive experience rating can be charged a rate as low as 0.025 percent, while those with a negative experience rating can be charged a rate as high as 5.4 percent. The Georgia Department of Labor also charges an administrative assessment, which slightly increases the payroll tax rate.

Trust fund solvency
The solvency of Georgia’s trust fund has been a growing concern since the recession began. During an economic downturn, two forces affect the trust fund’s solvency. First, as employers layoff employees, less payroll taxes are paid into the fund. At the same time, unemployment rates increase and there is a greater demand for unemployment checks. This is why it is essential for states to build up large trust funds during better economic times.

Solvency can be measured a few different ways, but one of the easiest measurements is called the reserve ratio. This measure provides a way to gauge the potential size of future claims against the fund.

Trust fund loan
If a state’s trust fund is deemed insolvent, it is still legally required to pay unemployment checks to eligible unemployed individuals. States may receive loans from the federal government to cover trust fund deficits.  

As of Nov. 4, 25 states had received loans from the federal government, including Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina. The average total loans received were approximately $823 million.

If states are forced to take a trust fund loan, additional federal UI taxes are imposed on employers. Federal guidelines require that only UI surcharges and general revenue pay interest payments on federal loans. The state is not allowed to use the trust fund balance to make interest payments.

When Georgia’s Unemployment Trust Fund was flush a few short years ago, existing businesses were allowed to skip paying unemployment taxes. Now, with the deep recession, rates for Georgia businesses may be going up.  

What is a little reassuring is that Georgia appears to be the last state in the Southeast to borrow federal funds. Some figures for other states are eyepopping, such as North Carolina at $1.3 billion.