ATLANTA Thousands of Georgia bus drivers, cafeteria workers and private school teachers, who this year were denied usual summertime unemployment checks, may get that money after all, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler instituted the benefits change on Jan. 30. He said it was unfair for contractual workers to receive seasonal benefits when public school system employees don't.
Washington officials determined last week that the Georgia Department of Labor violated workplace laws by refusing to pay the benefits. In an Aug. 2 letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the federal government ordered Butler to rescind the ruling and pay the teachers and contract workers for the weeks, or months, of lost unemployment benefits.
The payments — potentially millions of dollars — would come from businesses and/or taxpayers.
Butler met Monday in Atlanta with Teamsters Local 728 and other union and community leaders representing thousands of affected workers. He was granted a month's reprieve by the U.S. Labor Department to seek legal guidance from Georgia's attorney general.
By then, though, Washington expects the state to begin repaying workers such as Everton Daswell, a shuttle bus driver at Kennesaw State University whose summertime unemployment compensation claims were denied.
"If the [U.S. Labor Department's] ruling stands, then I say justice has been done," said Daswell, who works for a private company that contracts with the university. Daswell, out of full-time work since April, expects roughly $3,000 in lost benefits.
"Four months of bills have not been paid on time," he continued. "I couldn't look forward to any vacation. It affected our lives greatly."
In the early 1970s, Washington ruled that public school teachers, whose salaries are typically paid out over 12 months, weren't eligible for benefits during summer breaks. Teachers, who expect to be back at work in the fall, aren't considered laid-off — the main criteria to receive unemployment benefits.
Commissioner Butler, though, said public school teachers last year cried foul, as had private pre-kindergarten administrators whose unemployment insurance costs rise with each jobless claim. If a worker is approved for benefits, the pre-k provider is on the hook for additional unemployment insurance costs, which cut into slim profit margins.
"We were treating people employed directly by a public school system, or a university, differently than somebody who was contracted by a school system," Butler said in an interview Monday. "In cases where you have a great probability of returning to contracted work, then you're not eligible for unemployment."
The benefits change in January came as the state continued its push to trim jobless rolls and save money. Georgia's unemployment rate stood at 9 percent in June. The state owes Washington $743 million for jobless assistance borrowed during the recession.
In the Aug. 2 letter, the U.S. Labor Department wrote that Butler's "recent reinterpretation" of unemployment compensation is without "adequate statutory basis."