State defies U.S. on seasonal workers

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler is defying Washington by refusing to restart jobless benefits to seasonally unemployed teachers and bus drivers, setting up a showdown between state and federal officials.

“This is really a states’ rights issue. The administration is really over-stepping their bounds,” Butler said Thursday. “We will not back down from something we feel right about. We have the authority to write laws when it comes to unemployment.”

Butler and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who concurs with the Labor commissioner’s interpretation, vow to carry the fight to Washington.

The U.S. Department of Labor is “reviewing Georgia’s new legal position,” a spokesman said without elaboration. Washington officials earlier threatened to cut millions of dollars sent annually to Georgia to administer the unemployment program unless the state relented and resumed the payments.

For years, thousands of Georgia bus drivers, cafeteria workers, private school teachers and others had received jobless benefits during the summer when school is out. Butler, who says it’s unfair for contractual workers to receive the benefits when public school system employees do not, changed that last January.

School workers, who are usually re-hired in the fall, aren’t technically considered laid-off – the main criterion to receive jobless benefits. Many, though, have recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of being blind-sided by the ruling and unable to pay rent, mortgages or utility bills.

“We hope that Commissioner Butler can see how much pain and suffering his misinterpretation of the law is causing for so many families throughout the state of Georgia,” Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia State AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

In an Aug. 2 letter, U.S. Labor Department officials wrote that Butler’s “recent reinterpretation” of unemployment eligibility is without “adequate statutory basis.” They ordered Georgia to pay the benefits to those whose claims were denied this summer.

The commissioner estimates 3,500 to 4,000 bus drivers, pre-k teachers, landscapers, janitors, crossing guards and other contractually employed Georgians have filed or will file claims. Seasonal workers who didn’t apply for benefits yet may be eligible retroactively, could swell the rolls.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics labeled 64,702 Georgians as private “educational service” workers last September, a category that includes teachers, assistants and other educators employed by private companies on contracts for public schools and universities.

U.S. labor officials have threatened to slash some or all of the money Georgia gets to cover administrative costs of the unemployment benefits program. That amount was $72 million in fiscal 2011.

“It would be very irresponsible for them to do that,” Butler said. “It’s a pretty serious issue if the states just let the federal government tell us what to do all the time. We’re not trying to pick a fight here. We’re just trying to govern Georgia the way Georgians want us to govern.”

In a Sept. 4 letter the AJC obtained via an open records request, Butler wrote: “A reasonable interpretation of Georgia’s unemployment compensation statute permits the denial of unemployment compensation for summer breaks and other school vacations to all educational workers – rather than only those paid directly by schools, school boards or non-profits – and does not conflict with federal law in that respect or otherwise.”

He said public school teachers and private pre-k administrators complained last year that the seasonally jobless were receiving benefits unfairly. Pre-k schools are on the hook for additional unemployment insurance costs if a worker files for benefits.

The state’s cash-strapped unemployment insurance fund has sought to cut spending and reduce its jobless roll, now at 442,056. Georgia owes Washington roughly $740 million for jobless assistance borrowed during the recession.

Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate, 9.3 percent, is rising again.

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