What is the Georgia labor commissioner doing?  Depends on who you ask.

The primary responsibilities of the Georgia labor commissioner are, by law, to pay unemployment insurance claims and provide labor market statistics – although the head of the Department of Labor may also exercise more informal powers.

Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who served as a three-time Democratic labor commissioner before current Republican Commissioner Mark Butler was elected in 2010, to find out what duties and powers the state labor commissioner has.

Competing to replace Butler are state Sen. Bruce Thompson (Republican), a former Allstate insurance agent in Cartersville who founded companies like Quoteburst to offer online insurance quotes; State Rep. William Boddie (Democrat), an attorney from East Point; and Emily Anderson (Libertarian), highlighting her experience in food, retail, office and publishing.

Thompson and Boddie responded to the Georgia Decides Election Guide questionnaire organized by the Atlanta Civic Circle and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Anderson did not.

Butler decided not to run for re-election when the Georgia Department of Labor was sued over a backlog and delays in paying out unemployment claims during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Labor Department settled the class-action lawsuit with the Southern Poverty Law Center in September and agreed to improve the processing of unemployment claims provided there is adequate federal funding.

Regardless of who wins, the next labor commissioner will inherit a department that is much smaller and receives far less funding than it did during Thurmond's term, since the state legislature transferred its workforce development work to the Technical College System of Georgia last spring.

The department's budget for the year that began in July is about $52 million – a little less than half of last year's budget. And most of the money comes not from Georgia's bank account but from the federal government, so it relies on federal rules rather than the discretion of a labor commissioner.

Still, the next labor commissioner will have to contend with a still-dysfunctional unemployment insurance program, workers' rights battles raging across the state, labor shortages and concerns about economic development from corporate interests.

Despite all of this, Thurmond says candidates should be excited to take on the challenge. “It’s a magical moment for a labor commissioner,” he said. The Democrat has endorsed Boddie in the race.

Michael Thurmond is the CEO of DeKalb County. He has stated that he will not seek re-election after his term expires in 2024.

Thurmond, who served as Georgia's labor commissioner from 1998 to 2010, said he led a labor department focused primarily on career development. “As labor commissioner, I had a far-reaching vision,” he said. “Without vision, people perish.”

Thurmond's Department of Labor faced high unemployment nationwide after the Great Recession in 2008, he said. Therefore, it invested heavily in retraining and upskilling workers while working closely with the Technical College System of Georgia to improve job seekers' professional skills.

“My number one goal was to hire or rehire people,” Thurmond said.

For Thurmond, education was the backbone of workforce development. “We need to build careers, not just jobs,” he said. “There must be a seamless transition from training to working life.”

Area Development magazine has once again named Georgia the best business state in the country. Every year, the business magazine surveys a group of consultants who specialize in economic development and location selection. Georgia has held the top spot for nine years in a row.

A skilled, productive workforce is key to the state's ability to continue to convince large companies to come here, Thurmond said. Therefore, Georgia's economic development efforts to attract jobs to the state should definitely involve the Labor Commissioner.

“That's who we've always been [in those meetings]Thurmond said. “When you sell Georgia, the availability of a skilled workforce is your most important asset. So there has to be work.”

However, in Georgia there is a tension between business development and fair treatment of workers. Although Georgia is consistently ranked as one of the best states for business, it is also considered one of the worst states for workers.

Additionally, Thurmond said, Georgia's labor commissioner has limited authority to protect workers' rights in Georgia. “The U.S. Department of Labor has more power over labor rights,” he said. “My sentence has always been: employees, workers, employees, I want to support all working people.”

Candidate answers to ACC

Thompson, the Republican candidate for the post, said job training, not unionization, is the way for workers to raise their wages.

“We have a significant workforce shortage in Georgia as companies flock to our state, making our state the No. 1 place to do business for the ninth consecutive year. Our incredible technical college system provides Georgians with the opportunity to expand/improve their skills so they can demand higher wages,” he responded in our Georgia Decides Election Guide questionnaire.

Thompson added that unions shouldn't play a role in Georgia: “Unions may be appropriate for states like California that consistently rank at the bottom, but Georgia workers control their own destiny with the right to a work environment.”

He did not address employee concerns about workplace safety and treatment, which Amazon and Starbucks employees in the Atlanta metro area have said motivate the Atlanta Civic Circle in their workplace organizing efforts.

Thompson's Democratic opponent, Boddie, addressed the logjam in processing unemployment insurance claims that has plagued the Labor Department since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, saying he wants to use his powers if elected as the state's labor commissioner to support the rights of workers.

“As the next Labor Commissioner, I will regain the trust of Georgia's workers and working families by making the Department of Labor more accessible to all Georgians.” I will create a call center so Georgians can get a live person on the phone when they call the department. I will modernize the department’s technology,” Boddie responded to our Georgia Decides questionnaire.

“Excuses don’t pay the bills of people waiting for their unemployment checks. There must be sufficient staff,” he added.

Boddie said the Ministry of Labor can help create good jobs for Georgians by connecting with workers' groups: “I will also grow our workforce by working with unions, workers' organizations and technical colleges to create more livable wage jobs for everyone . “Georgians,” he said.

Boddie told the Atlanta Civic Circle that he sees Thurmond as a major political influence and that he will work to get the state General Assembly to pass pro-worker legislation, such as expanding parental leave, raising the state minimum wage and combating wage theft and employee abuse misclassification.

In the last legislative session, the attorney said, he helped pass Georgia's first workplace sexual harassment law “so that individuals who experience sexual harassment in the workplace can have legal grounds to file a complaint against their employer in the county or state.” in the community if they are at risk of retaliation.” report this incident of harassment.”

If Boddie were elected and made good on those promises, it would represent the kind of informal power to expand the department's role that Thurmond pursued during his tenure as labor commissioner – albeit with a new focus on workers' rights.