“They will get their benefits paid,” Labor Department spokesman Sam Hall said. “The labor department is in the process now of processing benefit payments to them.”
The 74 affected Augusta guards, most of whom work at crossings outside Richmond County schools, will be relieved to receive the money most have been collecting annually for many years, lead guard Susan Smith said.
“There’s people that had to max out charge cards, go to the Department of Family and Children Services,” Smith said. “I’ve got some crossing guards that had to have their phones cut off.”
In November 2011, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler took steps he said would prevent privately employed school workers from drawing summer benefits denied public school employees by federal law, a practice he said cost the state $50 million over the past five years.
The change also eliminated benefits for Augusta’s school crossing guards, who have been Augusta-Richmond County employees since consolidation. A few dozen staged a protest outside the Augusta labor department office when they learned, via denial letter, they’d been cut off from the benefits many had been instructed to collect for years.
The change hit 73-year-old guard Elizabeth Smith hard. She said she’d planned to spend the money on a few needed home repairs but had to use it for her power bill instead.
“I had no money,” she said. “I’ll be so thankful” to receive the refund, which Hall said would be issued in a lump sum for the amount the guards would have been paid last summer, she said.
Susan Smith said the change was likely to cost votes for Butler, who is up for re-election to a second term next year.
“He’s hurt a lot of people,” Smith said.
Butler had harsh words in a statement acknowledging the state was “forced” by the federal government to pay the benefits he sought to deny.
“These businesses are knowingly gaming the system and ripping off the rest of Georgia’s employers to pay for their employees’ vacation time,” he said.
Hall said Butler was referring to private employers who already pay the maximum unemployment tax but no more toward unemployment claims after they lay employees off.
Augusta doesn’t pay a percentage unemployment tax but refunds the state for each direct claim an employee files, Finance Director Donna Williams said.
Williams said she didn’t think restoring the benefits will burden the city budget. The part-time guards earn around $5,000 annually, only a portion of which is reimbursed as an unemployment benefit for the three months the guards aren’t employed.
“In the grand scheme of things, it couldn’t have been a whole lot,” she said.
Restoring the benefits will cost the state more than $8 million, but the U.S. Department of Labor warned Butler on April 2 that federal funding of Georgia Unemployment Insurance programs might be threatened if the state labor department doesn’t make the retroactive payments.
Labor unions who championed the plight of the workers – though most aren’t unionized – said Thursday’s decision was poignant, coming 45 years to the day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
“It’s a big victory for folks to get the benefits they deserve,” said Roger Sikes, an organizer with Atlanta Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of workers’ rights. “Through no fault of their own, they were denied unemployment benefits by Georgia’s own labor commissioner.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports were used in this story.