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U.S. Dept. of Labor Tells Georgia: 'You Violated the Law by Cutting Off UI Benefits'

After reviewing unilateral changes Georgia made to its unemployment insurance (UI) rules, the U.S. Department of Labor has declared that the state has no “adequate statutory basis” for denying UI benefits to seasonal employees who work for private contractors providing services to schools. The strongly-worded guidance to Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler came in an Aug. 2 letter obtained by the Atlanta Constitution Journal and publicized in their front page story: State ordered to reverse itself on some unemployment claims.

For more than 30 years, the department’s letter explained, workers for private sector educational employees have been eligible for UI benefits when they are laid off between school terms. The state lacks the authority to cut off these benefits through changing its guidance or regulations, the department determined. The federal agency called upon the state to “cease administering this regulatory and policy change immediately.” In effect, the department has mandated that the state reverse its policy and reinstate UI benefits to the contract bus drivers, crossing guards, cafeteria cooks, janitors, landscapers, private school teachers and others who are suffering from the state’s decision. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 64,000 Georgia employees qualified as private educational service workers in 2011.

The U.S. Department of Labor ruling became public in the midst of the Justice for School Workers Campaign. It has sponsored rallies of union and non-union workers in multiple Georgia cities, circulated a “reinstate unemployment benefits” petition, held a prayer vigil and engaged in other activities harkening back to the civil rights movement. Members of the campaign met with commissioner Butler on Monday and appealed to him to reverse the state’s decision before more harm is done to the state’s unemployment insurance system. According to a participant in the meeting, Butler refused to rescind his change in the UI rules and said that he planned to further “tighten” Georgia’s regulations to deny UI benefits to more unemployed workers. Butler has referred the federal letter to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.

The Justice for School Workers Campaign is a joint union and community effort that involves the Georgia AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 728, Atlanta Jobs with Justice, Workers United (an affiliate of SEIU) and other unions. On Saturday, Aug. 18th, the Workers’ Rights Board of Atlanta Jobs with Justice is convening a People's Court trial to hear from the workers whose lives have been disrupted by Georgia’s callous cutoff of UI benefits. A Facebook page provides more information on the event. Hundreds of workers are planning to attend. As one Facebook contributor says:

A group of Teamster drivers in Savannah, GA will be at this event on Aug. 18th. Much respect to these drivers leading the charge and inspiring other school workers across the state.... They say a key ingredient to building power is organized people. We believe that Georgia’s school workers should be in control of the decisions that impact their lives. 

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