Georgia lawmakers angry over unemployment benefits aim at labor head

Georgia lawmakers could temporarily strip the state’s elected labor commissioner of much of his authority, saying Republican Mark Butler has done too little to address a backlog of unemployment claims even as lawmakers have been inundated by complaints from constituents who say they’ve been wrongly denied jobless benefits.

The Senate Insurance and Labor Committee voted Wednesday to pass Senate Bill 156, sending it on the full Senate for more debate.

The bill would create a chief labor officer who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The chief labor officer, who would serve until 2023, would be charged with improving "the reliability and timeliness" of unemployment benefit awards.

The labor officer would also provide financial reports to the state’s Audit Department. The auditor complained earlier this year that the Labor Department was not providing all the information needed to complete Georgia’s annual audit, which could in turn hamper the state’s ability to borrow money.

MORE: 'How am I going to pay my rent?': Some Georgians still waiting for unemployment claims amid pandemic

Anger with Butler has been building among Democrats and Republicans for months, with Democratic House members holding a series of news conferences during the summer to protest his performance. Lawmakers got so many calls that they’ve been sending complaints electronically to the department for examination. But rules say the department can’t tell lawmakers how any claim turned out, so lawmakers can’t update constituents they’re trying to help.

Butler denies that his office is underperforming. His department said last week that it has paid benefits to more than 1.4 million weekly claims since last March, with a backlog of 80,000 claims left to be decided. The department said it was working through that backlog at a rate of 1,500 claims a day.

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Butler told The Associated Press earlier this month that a chief labor officer would not accomplish anything, saying an outside appointee won’t understand the department.

"I can’t see how appointing someone with zero knowledge of what we do is going to help," Butler said.

A former lawmaker, Butler said his department has examined cases of people who have called lawmakers to complain, but says many of them are ineligible for benefits.

"It has to do with the fact that they’re not qualified for unemployment," Butler said, citing one case referred by a lawmaker where the employee was fired for insubordination, which makes them ineligible.

Butler blames lawmakers for cutting the department’s funding over the last 10 years, saying that sapped the department’s manpower in the years before the pandemic unleashed a tidal wave of unemployment claims. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he said the department has hired 300 people using federal money, explaining that’s why he did not seek more state money this year.

"I don’t need the money now," Butler said. "The federal government has come in and given me plenty of money. The problem now is hiring and training."

Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, questioned Wednesday’s bill, saying it could create a conflict where two people are in charge of the department and is an improper attack on a statewide elected official.

"I think overreach is the correct phrase," Robertson said.

But other members of the committee said Butler’s performance has been so deficient that extraordinary measures are needed.

"They may have elected a constitutional officer, but perhaps it wasn’t the right one, because these are times that people are suffering extreme situations," said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a Dawson Democrat. "We want somebody there that is going to take care of the needs of Georgians."

Other senators agreed, saying they felt Butler has been unresponsive to their concerns.

"Frankly he’s just spurned any offer we’ve had to collaborate with him and provide additional support to get this backlog resolved," said Sen. Larry Walker, a Perry Republican. "The commissioner should not feel blindsided by this. We’ve extended offers of help over, really, the last nine months."

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