Bill stripping unemployment benefits from bus drivers gets final approval

Legislation that bans bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other people who work for private firms in public schools from claiming unemployment benefits when school is out was given final approval late Thursday.

House Bill 714, by Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, passed the Senate a 36-20 vote. Because of changes made to the bill in committee, it now goes back to the House for another vote. House members quickly agreed, voting 107-64 largely along party lines to send the bill to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Hamilton has said the bill seeks to close a loophole that costs the state millions of dollars. Labor Commissioner Mark Butler has pursued the measure after a 2011 attempt to block the benefits by agency rule failed when the federal government threatened to pull additional millions in federal funding. The state had to pay qualified workers $8 million in back benefits.

The move has outraged labor advocates, who say HB 714 does nothing but punish employees after private companies that employ them game the system by laying them off during school breaks. Advocates said about 60,000 school workers would be affected by the bill.

“We have stated all along that the real fix for this problem would be to put all of the employees on 12 month contracts and penalize high cost employers,” said the Georgia AFL-CIO’s Yvonne Robinson. “It’s a slap in the face to these experienced school workers who went above and beyond the call of duty to keep our kids safe during the Georgia snowstorms that crippled Atlanta, Augusta and other parts of Georgia — like bus drivers and teachers who spent the night at schools to stay with stranded kids.”

The bill survived several proposed amendments in the Senate, most of which failed. Democrats filed several of them seeking to blunt the effect of the bill.

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, also withdrew a proposal to insert "religious freedom" language into HB 714. McKoon earlier this session had failed to move a standalone religious freedom bill that critics feared would open the door for private business owners to discriminate against gays by citing religious beliefs.