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Unions and Community Groups Launch Justice for School Workers Campaign in Georgia

Georgia workers rally against unfair denial of unemployment benefits.

Relying upon a bogus interpretation of federal law and regulations, the state of Georgia has begun to deny seasonal workers the unemployment insurance (UI) benefits they have received for 16 years during their off seasons. Thousands of workers are affected—contract school bus drivers, bus monitors, longtime crossing guards, cafeteria cooks, janitors, landscapers and teachers in private religious schools. 

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is using an interpretation of federal law to justify the UI denial, a state policy decision that is being challenged by attorneys at the National Employment Labor Project (NELP). Since 1970, the U.S. Congress has passed a series of changes in federal UI law that enables states to turn down applications for UI benefits by workers directly employed by schools if such workers have a “reasonable assurance” of going back to work for the same public agency at the end of the scheduled vacation period or break. These rules apply only to the employees of “educational institutions” and “educational service agencies,” however. Georgia is applying these rules to private sector employees, such as school bus drivers who work on contracts with school districts and denying benefits to workers who depend upon this stream of income during the summer months. Some workers will have to find other jobs, denying the school system the skilled and experienced employees that help to ensure the smooth and safe operation of schools. In Savannah, Ga., alone, more than 400 bus drivers, school monitors and members of Teamsters Local 728 are being affected.

Fighting back against these callous and arbitrary moves, the Georgia AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 728 and Atlanta Jobs with Justice have joined together in a Justice for School Workers Campaign that is spreading across the state. In Atlanta and Savannah, the campaign has sponsored protests at Georgia Department of Labor offices. In late June, some 30 crossing guards from Richmond County assembled in local state government offices to meet with officials; they were quickly hustled out of the building. Atlanta Jobs with Justice is planning a tribunal to learn how the lives of nonunion workers are being thrown into crisis. “This has really struck a chord and we can win the public debate,” declared Ben Speight, a former cafeteria worker and current organizing director for Teamsters Local 728.

“This change hurts our local economy, school children, employers and thousands of hardworking Georgians,” explains Roger Sikes, a blogger for Atlanta Jobs for Justice. “Small businesses will be hit because working families will not be able to spend, school children will be impacted because companies may be forced to higher less-experienced drivers and cafeteria workers, employers will be hurting because they will have to recruit and train new workers with little experience….Mark Butler should reverse his decision immediately.” The group is documenting the labor-community campaign online at: www.atlantajwj.org

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