Bill scraps jobless benefits for seasonal workers

The state Senate approved a measure that would make changes to Georgia’s labor laws, including a proposed ban on whether some employees such as school bus drivers would qualify for unemployment benefits.

The 36-16 vote along party lines Monday sends House Bill 361 back to the House for consideration because it was changed in committee. Opponents on Tuesday said the General Assembly’s own lawyer warned that the bill could be unconstitutional, but supporters were unmoved.

HB 361 would additionally allow workers to opt out at any time from automatic payroll deductions for union dues — although it exempts certain groups, including MARTA workers, teachers, law enforcement officers and firefighters. Current law says workers must have only an annual option to opt out.

The ban on jobless benefits in the bill affects seasonally unemployed bus drivers and other private sector workers whose employers contract with public sector entities such as school systems. Supporters said it is expected to save the state up to $10 million annually.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler made a similar ruling last year, defying a federal mandate by refusing to restart jobless benefits to seasonally unemployed public school teachers and bus drivers. Federal labor officials have yet to respond to that action.

The state’s cash-strapped unemployment insurance fund has sought to cut spending and reduce its jobless roll — estimated at 423,337 as of January. Georgia owes Washington roughly $740 million for jobless assistance borrowed during the recession.

Meanwhile, a letter from G. Lynn Whitten, deputy legislative counsel, said the bill could “be subject to challenge” because the Georgia Constitution says “no bill shall pass which refers to more than one subject matter.”

HB 361 deals both with labor unions and unemployment benefits.

“It may be questioned whether there exists a logical or natural connection between membership in labor organizations and provisions changing the determination of eligibility for unemployment benefits of certain persons,” Whitten wrote.

But Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said the letter is unlikely to change anything.

“Both (parts of the bill) are incredibly needed, and late in the session we’re all required to combine bills into one bill in order to get important public policy moving forward,” he said.

Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia State AFL-CIO, said the bill will hurt low-paid workers who drive the state’s children to school. He said if the proposal becomes law, veteran, safe bus drivers could look for other work, leaving the state’s children in less experienced hands.

Susan Smith is a crossing guard in Augusta, where she has received unemployment every summer for more than 20 years to make ends meet.

Smith said the crossing guards work for the county, through the sheriff’s office, not the board of education, and were told to apply.

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