ATLANTA — Some Georgia employers are having a hard time filling job openings because generous unemployment benefits are encouraging them to stay home, state Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

Before $600 weekly unemployment checks authorized by Congress during the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic ran out last year, unemployed Georgians receiving maximum state and federal benefits were bringing in $50,180 per year, Butler told state lawmakers during a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting.

Even those receiving minimum state and federal benefits were taking home the equivalent of $34,060 a year, he said.

At the same time, about 90% of Georgians receiving state unemployment benefits were earning $30,000 or less before being laid off, Butler said.

“Companies are having to increase entry-level pay” to compete, he said.

Butler said generous unemployment benefits also are making it difficult for the labor department to hire the additional staff the agency needs to cope with the massive increase in unemployed Georgians seeking benefits since COVID-19 shut down the state’s economy last March and forced businesses to lay off workers.

The labor department has paid out nearly $17.3 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits to more than 4.3 million jobless Georgians since the virus struck, more than during the last nine years combined.

“We’ve been working seven days a week pretty much since this started,” Butler said.

Butler said the agency has brought back retirees to help with the increased claims workload, hired temporary workers and redirected current staff from other duties into handling claims. The number of employees working claims has more than doubled from 330 to about 700, he said.

Butler said some of the more recent economic numbers give him reason for optimism that an end is in sight.

Georgia has gained back 82% of the jobs lost since the pandemic first gained a foothold in Georgia last March, the labor department reported Thursday.

The state’s unemployment rate fell by a slight 0.1% last month to 5.6%, while the number of jobs in December grew by 44,700 to 4.56 million.

“December is yet another month where we have seen job growth throughout the state,” Butler said. “We more than doubled our job growth from November, which is very promising, considering how challenging of a year this has been.”

First-time unemployment claims in Georgia were down last week after increasing significantly last month. Unemployed Georgians filed 35,912 initial claims last week, down 1,127 from the previous week.

However, that followed a 19% increase in initial unemployment claims filed last month compared to November.

During the week ending Jan. 16, the job sector accounting for the most first-time unemployment claims in Georgia was accommodation and food services with 8,132 claims. The manufacturing job sector was next with 5,040 claims, followed by administrative and support services with 3,726.

More than half of the more than 170,000 jobs currently listed on EmployGeorgia advertise annual salaries above $40,000.

Resources for reemployment assistance along with information on filing an unemployment claim can be found on the labor department’s webpage at dol.georgia.gov.