School crossing guards displeased about unemployment benefits change

Richmond County crossing guard Elizabeth Smith was one of about 30 protesting a change that leaves them ineligible for unemployment benefits.

About 30 Richmond County school crossing guards were ordered off the Georgia Department of Labor premises Thursday morning after they gathered to question a change in state rules that left them ineligible for state unemployment benefits.

Head crossing guard Susan Smith questioned why the change, which this year eliminated the benefits for some seasonal education workers, was being applied to the guards, who are Richmond County Sheriff’s Office employees. She also asked why the approximately 70 guards were again provided annual written instructions about how to apply for the benefits if they weren’t eligible.

“We all want answers,” Smith said.

With most of the group moved to the sidewalk, Michael Armstrong, the assistant manager of the labor department’s downtown career center, told Smith that the guards were categorized as education workers in his records because they work in education and that they had a right to continue to file for the benefits, but that the department wasn’t allowed to inform the guards in advance of the rule change.

The labor department said in a statement Tuesday that the rule change, a belt-tightening measure by Labor Commissioner Mark Butler as Georgia copes with dwindling unemployment insurance coffers, was intended to “ensure equitable and fair treatment of all education workers.”

Several of the guards who appeared at the 8 a.m. gathering showed the letters they’d received from the sheriff’s office instructing them of the date and time when they should apply for benefits, along with documents showing how they continued to seek employment during the summer months, when they previously were eligible for unemployment.

Though the guards are Augusta employees, Richmond County Board of Education reimburses the city for half their annual salaries, said school board Controller Gene Spires. School bus drivers, who along with other seasonal education workers were affected by the rule change in other parts of the state, didn’t lose benefits here because their salaries are paid over a 12-month period.

Spires said the arrangement splitting the cost of crossing guards between the school system and Augusta government had been in place for at least 20 years for a service the system, which staffs its own police department, can’t do without.

“These children have to cross busy streets,” he said.

Several of the mostly elderly and female crossing guards were upset to learn about the change.

A guard for 40 years, 72-year-old Elizabeth Smith was distraught to learn the benefits that helped her through the summer months were gone without warning.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “What’s going to happen when school starts back and we don’t show up?”

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