Update: No more paper checks for those on unemployment in Georgia

Paper or plastic?

Starting Friday, those receiving unemployment benefit money from the Georgia Department of Labor will have no choice.

Recipients will be required to either choose direct deposit to have cash deposited into their checking accounts — something the state already has been doing for several years — or opt to be compensated by a debit card with a Mastercard logo.

The bottom line: No more paper checks.

“It’s a more customer friendly, secure way for the recipient to receive the unemployment insurance benefits,” Sam Hall, communications director with the labor department’s Atlanta headquarters, said today.

“They will have access to the money immediately upon its deposit into their account, and they can sign up to receive a (text) alert when a deposit is made,” he said. “From the department’s side, it’s efficient and it’s a tremendous cost saver.”

The labor department estimates it costs the state $19,000 per week to print and mail paper unemployment checks to those on the jobless rolls. That adds up to nearly $1 million a year. About 30 percent, or 35,400 of the 118,000 Georgians on unemployment, are still receiving the traditional paper financial documents.

But that stops Friday, with the last batch of paper checks being mailed by Thursday and the new debit cards taking effect the following day, Hall said.

Unemployment recipients will begin receiving the debit cards this week. They will require activation of a personal identification number (PIN) by telephone.

The cards, being issued by Comerica Bank under the “Go Program,” will be free initially, allowing users to make purchases just as they would with any debit or credit card.

The main hitch is that free ATM withdrawals are available only at machines with a MoneyPass logo. In the Columbus and Phenix City area, that includes most Walmarts, the Kmart in Phenix City and a handful of credit unions. Those choosing an ATM out of the network will be charged 95 cents per transaction.

Card usage also includes other potential fees, including $1.50 to transfer money to another account, 50 cents per “bill pay” transaction, and $1.75 per month should an account remain inactive for 12 consecutive months.

The transition away from paper, however, will be an overall improvement for those receiving unemployment assistance each week, Hall said. That includes the ability to go online and look at an account to see any transactions and how much money remains.

“When you’re mailing a paper check, sometimes there can be an unavoidable delay, or paper checks can sometimes be lost or stolen,” he said. “By going to the debit card system, it’s a going to be an improved method of getting the unemployment insurance benefits to the recipient in a quicker and more secure manner.”

In the Columbus metro area last month, 949 residents filed for jobless assistance for the first time, according to the labor department. That’s down from 1,060 initial claims submitted in August and 1,329 in September a year ago.