Bill stripping unemployment benefits from bus drivers gets final approval

Final approval was given Thursday to legislation that would ban bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others who work for private firms in public schools from claiming unemployment benefits when school is out.

The measure, House Bill 714, now awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature to become law.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, has said the bill seeks to close a loophole that costs the state millions of dollars. But opponents of the legislation said it targeted employees when the state should have gone after their employers.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler pursued the measure after a failed attempt in 2011 to block the benefits by agency rule when the federal government threatened to pull additional millions in funding. The state had to pay qualified workers $8 million in back benefits.

The legislation has outraged labor advocates, who say HB 714 does nothing but punish employees of private companies that game the system by laying off workers 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 Yvonne Robinson of the Georgia AFL-CIO. “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, before it passed that chamber by a 36-20 vote. Democrats filed several of those proposals, 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 stand-alone religious freedom bill that critics feared would open the door for private business owners to discriminate against gays by citing religious beliefs.

Because of changes made in the Senate, the bill then returned to the House. There, it passed on a vote of 107-64, largely along party lines.