Monday, July 2, 2012

AJC Covers Seasonal Unemployment Issue

By: Dan Chapman, Nancy Badertscher; Staff - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution June 30, 2012

No more jobless checks for many workers who are off in the summer.

Thousands of Georgia private school teachers, contract bus drivers and cafeteria workers who used to receive unemployment benefits during the summer are no longer eligible for those checks under newly enforced Georgia labor rules.

State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said public school teachers, who have long been ineligible for the benefits, had cried foul, as had private pre-kindergarten administrators whose unemployment insurance costs rise with each jobless claim.

The regulatory change comes as Georgia pushes to trim unemployment rolls --- and its stubbornly high unemployment rate of 8.9 percent. Last month, 210,414 Georgians received unemployment benefits.

Labor departments don't track employment by occupation, making it impossible to determine how many workers got seasonal jobless benefits. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics labeled 64,702 Georgians as private "educational service" workers last September, a category that includes teachers, assistants and other educators employed by private companies on contracts for public schools and universities. Thousands of other contractually employed Georgians drove buses, cleaned toilets or served meatloaf at schools across the state.

Federal law lets states decide whether to offer benefits to workers whose jobs don't last year-round, such as contract school bus drivers, lifeguards and actors.

Butler said factory workers and others who might apply for seasonal unemployment benefits won't be affected by this change.

"We were treating private education employees different than we were public education employees. So it's just a fairness issue so that we treat all education workers the same," Butler said. "Unemployment insurance is for people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It's not intended to be supplemental income."

But for years, thousands of contract bus drivers, pre-k teachers, cafeteria workers, landscapers, janitors and crossing guards who work for private companies have depended upon weekly unemployment checks to supplement their earnings. (Private schools and day care centers usually offer teachers starting pay of about $25,000 to $28,000; public school teachers average $32,000 starting pay.)

Everton Daswell, one of thousands of Georgians caught unaware by the change, said it's unfair to strip jobless benefits that amount to as much as one-fifth of an annual salary.

"My income has dropped drastically," said Daswell, a shuttle bus driver at Kennesaw State University employed by a private contractor. "I have put some of my bills on hold. I am just barely making the mortgage. I had set my budget on receiving unemployment benefits."

In the 1970s, Washington ruled that public school teachers, whose salaries are typically paid out over 12 months, weren't eligible for benefits during summer breaks. Teachers, with an expectation of being back at work in the fall, aren't considered laid-off --- the main criteria to receive unemployment benefits. (Catholic school employees in Atlanta also aren't eligible.)

Angela Goddard teaches fourth grade at Faith Christian Academy, a private school in Griffin. On May 31, the last day of school, she applied for unemployment benefits as she had the two previous years.

This time, Goddard's claim was denied. Goddard said her family will be squeezed financially until she receives her next school paycheck Aug. 15.

"We'll make it through somehow," Goddard said, saying she'll probably turn to family members for a loan. "We're real people. We're not just a statistic or a number that DOL is trying to cut."

Georgia, which must repay the federal government $745 million for jobless assistance borrowed during the recession, has whittled the number of unemployment beneficiaries this year, as well as the amount of money they receive. Curtailing seasonal unemployment benefits will free up money that could help repay Washington.

"But this is really about applying the law the way it's supposed to be," Butler said.

The commissioner said he first heard complaints from "multiple employers and public school employees" last year. He held a public hearing in December, before the eligibility change took effect Jan. 30 --- enough time, Butler said, for workers without jobs in the summer to learn about it.

Carolyn Salvador, director of the Georgia Child Care Association, said private pre-k teachers routinely file for unemployment benefits in the summer and during Christmas break. If the workers are approved for benefits, the pre-k provider is on the hook for additional unemployment insurance costs, which cuts into slim profit margins. About 1,100 pre-k schools have closed since 2009, Salvador said, victims largely of the recession.

Salvador and Goddard, the Griffin private school teacher, say some employers encourage their workers to apply for benefits during the summer --- in effect a subsidy that benefits employers.

Robbin Plesher, owner of Discover Point Child Development Center franchises in Alpharetta and Acworth, is fighting an employee's attempt to collect unemployment this summer. The employee was offered and turned down summer work at the center and immediately filed to collect unemployment, Plesher said.

Fifteen states restrict unemployment benefits to workers who earn the bulk of their salaries in seasonal jobs. Rick McHugh, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a pro-labor think tank, expects more states to impose benefit restrictions.

"You're supposed to be protecting people from the risk of involuntary wage loss," he said. "At what point do we quit having what can be called unemployment insurance?"