Tuesday, February 11, 2014

GA House Votes to Punish School Workers because their Bosses are "Gaming the System"

By: Ross Gordon - ross.s.gordon@gmail.com

Six Congressional speakers took the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives Monday morning and agreed, one after another, that a handful of private contractors have been exploiting Georgia's unemployment benefit system. Where public schools typically pay their bus drivers and cafeteria workers year-round, several private contractors have cyclically hired these employees to inexpensive nine month contracts, relying on the state of Georgia to kick in unemployment benefits during the summer. And yet, at the end of nearly an hour of debate, the House voted 111-60 to revoke unemployment benefits for these workers, effectively punishing employees for the misconduct of their employers. If the bill – HB714 – passes the Georgia Senate later this week, thousands of Georgia workers will lose their summer income.

Affected workers have spoken out against HB714: Deon Brooks, a bus driver with an Atlanta charter school, recently explained to a CBS Atlanta reporter that "in just three months no one wants to hire you if you're leaving again... Without those checks, some of us literally become homeless.” This reality – that temporary, three-month employment is not easily available in a state with a 7.4% unemployment rate – was lost on Rep. Mark Hamilton, the bill's sponsor and one of only two state representatives to speak in favor of the bill during Monday's extended debate. Rep. Hamilton's claim that unemployed school workers can simply find other work during the summer betrays a profound disconnect with the people most affected by his legislation.

Other representatives spoke out persuasively against the bill during Monday's legislative session. Rep. Al Williams drew applause with a powerful speech, expressing his “terror at the lack of compassion” in the bill and “praying for the day when [Georgia] is the best place to live and the best place to work,” and not merely, as some have claimed, the “best place to do business.” Rep. Pedro Marin added that eliminating benefits for contracted school workers, most of whom earn $13,000-$18,000 a year, would be a slap in the face to the same Georgia bus drivers who just two weeks ago worked through the night to ensure the safety of Georgia's children in a paralyzing snowstorm. And Rep. Stacy Abrams, the House minority leader, persuasively made the case that HB714 was little more than burden shifting: from the unemployment system to the welfare system, from businesses to employees, and from private companies to public schools.

For supporters, the case for HB714 essentially comes down to the claim that there are no alternatives. Rep. Jimmy Pruett, the other representative to speak in favor of the legislation, claimed that after a summer of investigation into the unemployment issue he could find “no alternative” and that, if such an alternative existed, he would support it. But this claim makes little sense. For one, Congressional representatives suggested several alternative measures, from a Department of Labor decision to increase private contractors' contribution to unemployment benefits, to a reclassification of seasonal workers under unemployment law, to the establishment of a committee to further study the issue. For another, the representatives pushing the bill have showed little willingness to listen to outside input that could lead to alternative policies, refusing to listen to worker testimony at Thursday's committee hearing and limiting Monday's debate to under an hour before calling for a vote. And even if there were no other way to punish companies for exploiting unemployment law, this still wouldn't justify legislation that holds workers accountable for their employers' misconduct: if this is the best policy that can be found, then it would be better to do nothing at all.

HB714 passed the Georgia House on Monday, but it can still be stopped in the Senate. Make sure your Senator knows the facts: to make your voice heard on unemployment benefits for Georgia workers, contact your district's Senator, or call Lt. Governor Casey Cagle at 404-656-5030.