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School workers offer lawmaker complaints

Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 8:23 AM
Last updated 6:32 PM
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ATLANTA — A half-dozen contract-school workers complained Thursday they weren’t allowed to testify before a House committee voted to end their unemployment benefits.

Bus driver Quentin Hutchins, right, who works for a company contracted with the Atlanta Public Schools, offers the testimony he wanted to give to a House committee if he had been allowed before it voted to disqualify him and other school-contract workers from receiving unemployment insurance during holidays. Listening in are cafeteria workers Terrance Davis, left, and Willie Blackmon, while Democratic legislators sit in the back row.   Walter Jones/ Morris News Service
Walter Jones/ Morris News Service
Bus driver Quentin Hutchins, right, who works for a company contracted with the Atlanta Public Schools, offers the testimony he wanted to give to a House committee if he had been allowed before it voted to disqualify him and other school-contract workers from receiving unemployment insurance during holidays. Listening in are cafeteria workers Terrance Davis, left, and Willie Blackmon, while Democratic legislators sit in the back row.

The committee passed legislation that disqualifies employees of companies contracted to schools as a cost-saving measure. The companies normally lay off the workers during school holidays, encouraging them to apply for the benefits.

The vice chairman of the House Industry and Labor Committee, Rep. Chad Nimmer, refused shouts from the audience to allow testimony before the party-line vote for House Bill 714, sponsored by the committee Chairman Mark Hamilton. He said the legislators had other meetings to rush to.

Testimony is customarily given in subcommittees, but worker representatives said notice of the subcommittee meeting was only made public hours beforehand. That wasn’t adequate time for the workers to get away from their jobs, especially those from Savannah and Valdosta who wanted to participate.

Rep. Pete Marin, D-Duluth, asked Nimmer to make an exception to allow the testimony before the full committee, including Brett Hume, a Savannah insurance agent who wanted to explain how his business is harmed when workers stop paying his policy premiums.

“I drove four hours to be here,” Hume shouted.

Nimmer said he had to stick to his schedule.

So after the quick, 6-3 vote and adjournment, the workers took over the seats the legislators left and held their own “hearing” to tell reporters what they would have testified.

“Every day, bus drivers and cafeteria workers ensure that our kids are safely transported to school and eat a warm, healthy meal, but we actually do more than that,” said Quentin Hutchins, an Atlanta bus driver for 16 years. “We protect kids from bullies, and fights. We help students with depression and suicidal thoughts. Sometimes we’re the person they come to.”

Willie Blackmon, a cafeteria worker at Atlanta University, said he and his colleagues work hard and should be entitled to the benefits.

“Now they’re going to take our unemployment. What are we going to live off of?” he asked.

Elaine Watts, a cafeteria worker at Morehouse College, said loss of the weekly benefit checks will create difficult choices.

“I know people who have to choose between their gas or their electricity or their water bill,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to live like that anyway, but not when you’re working.”

Marin said there is little hope of opponents changing or stopping the bill before the whole House votes on it in coming days. Senate consideration, though, could be a better opportunity for the opponents to be heard.


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