School workers fight denial of unemployment benefits

Atlanta — With each blow of the gavel, the words “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” brought the crowd to their feet, cheering and clapping.

On Aug, 18, a panel of community judges — comprised of ministers and priests, lawyers, civil and human rights activists, elected officials and radio hosts — unanimously determined that Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler abused his power, falsely and incorrectly interpreted the law, and caused substantial damage to thousands of workers and their families.

The People’s Court had just heard the very compelling stories of hardship by school employees across the state who had been denied unemployment benefits during the summer layoff.

For at least the last 30 years, Georgia bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, janitors, grounds crews and pre-K teachers employed by private companies have received unemployment compensation while school was out.

However, this year, first-term Labor Commissioner Butler determined that these payments were in violation of federal regulations and ordered that the 64,000 school employees who work for subcontracted businesses were not eligible for summer unemployment benefits.

There was an immediate fightback from both unionized and unorganized workers who staged protests at local labor offices. Atlanta Jobs with Justice initiated a series of demonstrations, press conferences, petitions and letter campaigns that generated media attention and public support.

“The People’s Court to Bring Mark Butler to Justice” allowed more than two dozen workers, mostly Black women, to speak to a large community audience. Evidence was presented of the ongoing attacks on unemployment benefits by right-wing officials and corporate lobbyists.

Testimony from affected workers described how shocked they were to be turned away at unemployment offices. Most had no or very little advance knowledge that they would be without any income for three-plus months.

Tears flowed as bus drivers from Columbus and Savannah, Ga., and cafeteria workers from Atlanta spoke about losing cars and homes, having no food to feed their children, facing threats by bill collectors and utility companies, having to borrow money from family and friends, and relying on help from food banks and church pantries. With great emotion they described how this has impacted their sense of dignity and self-respect.

Commissioner defies federal order

These workers passionately decried the Labor Commissioner’s decision as unfair and illegal — a position the federal Department of Labor seems to agree with. Days before the People’s Court took place, Butler was informed that under the law these workers were eligible for unemployment compensation and the state of Georgia was ordered to pay them. Rather than comply, Butler appealed this federal mandate.

In the economic boom years in the early 2000s, the Georgia Assembly voted for a four-year waiver for businesses paying into the unemployment fund. Georgia was particularly hard hit by the collapse of financial and housing sectors in 2007, with higher unemployment rates than the national average for several years. The state was forced to borrow money from the federal government to continue meeting its unemployment benefits payments. Now the state has to pay that money back.

The pro-business majority in the state government recently reduced both the monetary amount and the number of weeks newly unemployed workers can receive unemployment compensation, ranking Georgia as the worst state for unemployment payments in the country.

Buoyed by the solidarity expressed at the People’s Court and by the reprimand from the federal Department of Labor, the affected workers, their families and community supporters plan to step up the pressure on Butler to rescind his ruling.

The verdict is in: Mark Butler is guilty and the workers want justice NOW.

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