ATLANTA — First-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell by 11,053 last week to 73,931, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Still, the nearly 3.4 million initial claims the state agency has processed since March 21 is more than the labor department handled during the last eight years combined.

The labor agency has taken some heat this week from Democrats in the General Assembly over a backlog of unprocessed claims and benefit payments that has piled up as the number of unemployed Georgians soared during the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia House Democrats have held news conferences across the state to call attention to the number of unprocessed payments, a problem that has become even more critical since Congress allowed the federal program paying $600 a week to unemployed Americans to expire at the end of last week.

“We are at a critical time for many Georgians,” said Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex. “Failure to pass the extended unemployment benefits has left individuals, families, workers and businesses at risk.”

Responding to the criticism Thursday, Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said 92% of all valid claims submitted in the last 19 weeks have been paid. However, more than 135,000 other initial unemployment claims have been filed by Georgians who have not worked in the last 18 months and are, thus, ineligible for unemployment benefits, he said.

“Unemployment insurance is not a guaranteed benefit,” Butler said. “Each claim has to be thoroughly reviewed for eligibility and verified before payments can be issued.

“A claimant may not be granted benefits if they have not worked and earned insured wages in the past 18 months or were fired for cause or quit a job of their own accord. Many times, the employer and employee have different versions of what happened, and that takes even longer to gather information for a complete decision.”

Since March 21, the job sector accounting for the most first-time unemployment claims is accommodation and food services with 802,990 claims. The health care and social assistance job sector is next with 398,353 claims, followed closely by retail trade with 368,039.

More than 122,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.