ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate voted mostly along party lines Monday to pass legislation opposed by organized labor and school-bus drivers, crossing guards and lunchroom workers, many employed by private contractors.
In Augusta, however, the bill prevents Richmond County school crossing guards, who are employees of the city of Augusta and don’t belong to a union, from collecting the benefits.
“It makes us feel real bad,” said Susan Smith, lead crossing guard over about 72 mostly elderly, female guards who have helped Richmond County children safely cross and collected the summer benefits for many years.
“When you’ve got crossing guards that’s up in their 70s, who’s going to hire them for the 11 weeks that they’re out of work for the summer?”
Smith said she couldn’t understand why the Richmond County guards are being lumped in with the other school workers statewide, while area factory employees routinely draw benefits during periods of lack of work.
“Like when we had the mills, when their jobs run out for a week or two at a time... you go fill the application out for unemployment,” Smith said. “What is the difference between that and a school crossing guard? Nothing.”
Employer groups such as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Georgia Traditional Manufacturers hailed the passage of House Bill 361. Conservatives are pushing similar bills in other states.
The primary bill ensures workers vote by secret ballot when deciding if a union will represent them. It also allows union members to withdraw anytime and stop having dues deducted from their paycheck.
A Senate committee added provisions on behalf of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler to end summer unemployment checks for employees of private schools and workers contracted with public schools.
Butler had tried to halt the payments last summer, saying it was inconsistent since the teachers, bus drivers, crossing guards and lunchroom workers employed directly with public school systems don’t get the benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor ordered the payments reinstated because Butler couldn’t point to a state law denying the benefits, something he sought to fix with legislation.
“What happens is these private vendors come in and they get these contracts … and they pay low wages, and they expect them to get unemployment over the summer,” said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “We end up paying for that as the state. So, we’re trying to not let them scam the system, basically.”
Smith said the Richmond County guards weren’t perpetrating a scam but in fact had received annual written instructions from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to apply for the benefits ever since the group was assigned to Augusta-Richmond County government during consolidation.
And despite the federal order, Richmond County guards never saw their benefits reinstated after learning last year, via a denial letter, they were no longer eligible, she said. About 30 of the guards, whose typical salary for nine months’ work is $9,000, staged a protest outside the Labor Department office in Augusta last June.
Democrats opposed the bill, many of them recounting their parents’ experience as union members.
Even Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, made it a union issue, apparently unaware of the Augusta guards’ predicament.
Davis said his father was in a union and that many of the women who were leaders in his church as a child were cafeteria workers or bus drivers.
“At the end of the day, just because we’re elected Senator This and Senator That, we can’t come to this Senate and not remember the people who got us here,” he said.
Smith said despite the hardship, the guards are dedicated to child safety and unlikely to abandon their crossings.
“I’m not going to walk away from my job just because I can’t find nothing for 11 weeks. I’m going to stick with it,” she said.