ATLANTA -- Two legislative groups are demanding Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler pay 32,000 school workers unemployment benefits for their summer break.
The Georgia Working Families Legislative Caucus joined the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus at its annual convention in Stone Mountain to urge Butler to issue the benefit checks as the Department of Labor has done for decades.
“It’s concerting very much on a human level but also on a state-leadership level,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat who co-chairs the Working Families group. “Is this the way we treat hard-working Georgians?”
The workers are bus drivers, cafeteria employees and others employed by private companies under contract with schools and colleges. In years past, those workers collected weekly unemployment checks when they were off the job.
Butler changed the policy on the benefits last winter, but it didn’t surface until bus drivers for the Savannah public schools were denied benefits when they applied during spring break. They and groups have staged protests in Savannah, Augusta and Atlanta in the months since.
In early August, the U.S. Department of Labor instructed Butler to restore the benefits. A month later, he wrote back asking for more time and explaining that state law exempts the workers just as it does for teachers and employees working directly for public schools.
“In short, a reasonable interpretation of Georgia’s unemployment-compensation statue permits the denial of unemployment compensation for summer breaks and other school vacations to all education workers -- rather than only those paid directly by schools, school boards or nonprofits -- and does not conflict with federal law in that respect of otherwise,” he wrote.
Friday’s press conference demonstrated legislative interest in the issue.
Orrock said she had spoken to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis about the issue and would continue to keep it in the public spotlight as long as needed.
“We intend to use the bully pulpit,” Orrock said. “We think most Georgians are not aware of this situation. It’s a gross abuse of power by a statewide elective official.”
Butler was out of town Friday and unavailable to comment, said his spokesman Ed Hall.