Critic: Georgia’s suspension of $ 300 weekly unemployment advantages won’t spur the workforce

Lawmakers and union leaders, led by Democratic Representatives Dewey McClain and Sandra Scott, shouted, “Open these doors!” in front of the Georgia Department of Labor’s closed career center in Atlanta. Ross Williams / Georgia recorder

Amanda Shorts did a great job as a project assistant for a civil engineering firm before COVID-19 came to Georgia. She is now one of more than 121,000 Georgians looking for work earlier this month.

“I knew it was a money thing and it wasn’t personal but it felt like getting fired even though you were laid off and the reason for this is COVID-19 and nothing you did wrong, you feel still terrible. ” She said.

As soon as she got the news, Shorts applied for unemployment and looked for work. She recorded her job search in a table of well over 100 color-coded entries showing how far she has come with each company she applied to.

Critic: Georgia’s suspension of $ 300 weekly unemployment advantages won’t spur the workforceAmanda Shorts flips through her long list of jobs she has applied for since she lost her job after COVID-19. Ross Williams / Georgia recorder

For many, she received a rejection almost after submitting her application because of the sheer number of applicants, she said. A job offer she later received turned out to be from a scammer using the name of a real company, but Shorts hasn’t given up.

“It’s a numbers game,” she said. “Even if you have 100 nos, you might have to get 1,000 before you can get a job.”

Shorts said she was lucky her husband still had his job, and with his income and unemployment benefits she received, they were able to pay the mortgage.

“We’d be homeless if he didn’t work,” she said. “We already lost a house in 2012 when he was laid off, and in 2019 we finally got another house, but it was based on two incomes and now we only have one. If I don’t get a job soon, it could be our second loss of a house. “

Shorts was one of a few dozen unemployed workers, lawmakers, and labor activists who protested outside the Georgia Department of Labor headquarters in Atlanta on Wednesday against a plan to end Georgia’s participation in state unemployment programs, including one that added 300 weekly benefits US dollars.

The programs will end on June 26, rather than the original September 6, cutting the program by 10 weeks and $ 3,000 per displaced worker, the state announced last week.

Once Georgia pulls out, workers unable to find work will be entitled to regular state unemployment benefits, which will be $ 365 per week. Assuming a 40-hour week, Georgians receiving maximum unemployment will cut their benefits from the equivalent of about $ 16.63 an hour to about $ 9.13 an hour.

“It’s not enough to pay for groceries, it is not enough to pay for childcare, it is not enough to pay rent, it is not enough to pay for your mortgage,” said James Williams, president of the North Georgia Labor Council. “The Georgians will start losing their homes. They are already having a hard time getting high paying jobs in Georgia. And the Ministry of Labor expects more Georgians to go back to work when their offices are barricaded. “

The Georgia Department of Labor indefinitely closed its physical offices to the public last March to avoid the spread of COVID-19, but staff still often work long hours and care for the unprecedented number of Georgians unemployed, the spokeswoman said of the department, Kersha Cartwright.

“Most of our people don’t work from home, they work in these career centers. These career centers are simply not open to the public. We have people working in the career center they met outside today, ”she said. “There were people in these career centers, there were people who worked from home, there were people who worked in different places, but the Department of Labor people worked every day.”

Governor Brian Kemp, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Conservative allies have cited the $ 300 checks as an incentive to keep Georgians off work, which they believe has contributed to a labor shortage.

“Georgia is openly and for good reason the best state to do business with, but the biggest challenge our small businesses still face is rebuilding their workforce when their employees receive a bonus to stay at home “Said Drew Ferguson, Republican Congressman from Georgia. “It is time to step on the gas in our economy and restore the dignity of work.”

Georgians have good reasons to be reluctant to get back to work, said Senator Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat and chairwoman of the Georgia Legislature’s Black Caucus.

“The childcare challenges that many of our employees face are not taken into account, especially when many school-aged children are still at home,” she said. “There is no discussion of the fear workers may have of returning to work and the possibility of contracting a variant of COVID-19. There is no debate about how we can offer additional training to high-paid workers in emerging sectors. “

In a statement released last week, Governor Kemp’s Office and Department of Labor said “Resources for job search assistance, education and training, childcare and transportation services, and safe workplaces initiatives for workers, families and employers” will be released coming weeks , but further details have not yet been revealed.

Help for job seekers is available on the Department of Labor’s Employ Georgia website, including tips on resume writing and interview skills, Cartwright said, and the governor’s office will post details of other initiatives to help Georgians get back to work . The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the story.

Paying workers higher would be a better way to get them back on site, said Dewey McClain, a Lilburn Democrat who sponsored a bill to raise the Georgia minimum wage to $ 15 an hour earlier this year . The calculation did not go ahead.

“Who complains about not having a job? Is it high-paying jobs at $ 15, $ 20, or $ 25 an hour? No, they aren’t, ”said McClain. “These are jobs that pay $ 5.15 an hour, there are jobs in the poultry industry, there are jobs out there picking grapes and picking fruit.”

The Georgia minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour, a lower limit set by the state minimum wage rate, with exceptions for jobs that depend on tipping, such as restaurant clerks.

The leisure and hospitality industry, a category that includes entertainment and catering services, has the largest hiring gap, according to the state Department of Labor, but other industries, including freight and poultry, report that there are far more jobs than applicants.

It’s not easy to see how training programs would motivate workers to return to low-entry jobs, said Ian Schmutte, associate professor of economics at the University of Georgia, but solving the problem of childcare and convincing workers that the safe return could be the key. to rebuild the workforce.

“I don’t think this is a situation where we have workers with certain skills and employers who demand different skills and so there are some inconsistencies that the training will fix,” he said. “I think there is a massive problem with childcare.”

Other workers are understandably not enthusiastic about returning to low-paying jobs and fear that a new COVID-19 outbreak could put them at risk, he said.

“People are reluctant to return to work in sectors where they have been laid off for months, in an environment where it could easily happen again. Therefore, I would take the vaccination campaign very seriously and also take childcare issues very seriously. I don’t think it will be particularly effective to cut off unemployment insurance benefits. “

Some of the protesters, like Marcellus Rowe, a former Atlanta public transport worker, said they hope the labor shortage will lead people to recognize the importance of important workers and advocate higher wages and better benefits.

“As we saw with the protests this summer, this generation is different,” he said. “We’re not going to sing a lot, no, we didn’t come to play. We are actually there and will put pressure on. “