The Georgia labor commissioner’s main functions by law are to pay out unemployment insurance claims and provide labor market statistics–but the Labor Department leader can also exercise more informal power.
Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who was a three-term Democratic labor commissioner before the current Republican commissioner, Mark Butler, was elected in 2010, to find out what the duties and powers of the state labor commissioner are.
Vying to replace Butler are state Sen. Bruce Thompson (Republican), a former Allstate Insurance agent in Cartersville who’s started businesses including Quoteburst to provide online insurance quotes; state Rep. William Boddie (Democrat), a lawyer from East Point; and Emily Anderson (Libertarian), who highlights her experience working in food, retail, office and publishing jobs.
Thompson and Boddie responded to the Georgia Decides Election Guide questionnaire organized by Atlanta Civic Circle and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Anderson did not.
Butler decided not to seek reelection at a time 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, agreeing to improve how it processes unemployment claims, subject to adequate state funding.
No matter who wins, the next labor commissioner will inherit a department that’s a lot smaller and receives far less funding than during Thurmond’s tenure, because the state legislature last spring transferred its workforce development operation to the Technical College System of Georgia.
The department’s budget for the year that began in July is about $52 million — that’s a little less than half the previous year’s budget. And most of the money comes not from Georgia’s bank account, but from the federal government, so it comes with federal rules rather than space for a labor commissioner to maneuver.
Even so, the next labor commissioner must navigate a still-dysfunctional unemployment insurance program, workers’ rights struggles roiling throughout the state, labor shortages and economic development concerns from business interests.
Despite all that, Thurmond says the 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.
Thurmond, who served as Georgia’s labor commissioner from 1998 to 2010, said he oversaw a labor department focused on career development above all else. “I had an expansive vision as labor commissioner,” he said. “Without vision, the people perish.”
Thurmond’s Labor Department faced high statewide unemployment after the Great Recession hit in 2008, he said, so it invested heavily in retraining and upskilling workers while working closely with the Technical College System of Georgia to increase job seekers’ vocational skills.
“My prime directive was to get people employed or re-employed,” said Thurmond.
Thurmond saw education as the backbone of workforce development. “We’ve got to build careers, not just jobs,” he said. “There has to be a seamless transition from education into the workforce.”
Area Development magazine has again named Georgia the country’s best state for business. The business magazine annually surveys a panel of consultants who specialize in economic development and business 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 convincing big businesses to come here, Thurmond said, so Georgia’s economic development efforts to attract jobs to the state should absolutely include the labor commissioner.
“We were always [in those meetings],” said Thurmond. “If you’re selling Georgia, your most important asset is the availability of a skilled workforce. So labor has to be there.”
But there’s a tension in Georgia between business development and treating workers fairly. Though Georgia has been consistently recognized as one of the best states for business, it has also been recognized as one of the worst states for workers.
What’s more, Thurmond said, Georgia’s labor commissioner has limited power to protect Georgia workers’ rights. “The U.S. Department of Labor has more power over labor rights,” he said. “My phrase was always white-collar, blue-collar, no-collar, I want to elevate all working people.”
Candidate responses to ACC
Thompson, the Republican candidate for the post, said that vocational education, not unionizing, is the way for workers to increase their pay.
“We have a significant workforce shortage in Georgia as businesses flock to our state, making our state the No. 1 place to do business for the 9th year in a row. Our incredible Technical College system offers opportunities for Georgians to increase/improve their skill sets so they can demand higher wages,” he responded in our Georgia Decides Election Guide questionnaire.
Thompson added that unions should not play a role in Georgia: “Unions may be appropriate for states such as California that continually rank near the bottom, but employees in Georgia control their own destiny with the right to work environment.”
He did not address employees’ concerns about workplace safety and treatment, which metro-Atlanta Amazon and Starbucks workers have told Atlanta Civic Circle are motivating their workplace organizing efforts.
Thompson’s Democratic opponent, Boddie, addressed the gridlock over processing unemployment insurance claims that have plagued the Labor Department since they surged at the onset of COVID-19, and said he aimed to use his powers if elected state labor commissioner to support workers’ rights.
“I am going to regain the trust of Georgia workers and working families as the next labor commissioner by making the Department of Labor more accessible to all Georgians. I am going to create a call center so that Georgians can get a live human being on the phone when they call the department. I’m going to modernize the department’s technology,” Boddie said in response to our Georgia Decides questionnaire.
“Excuses don’t pay the bills of people waiting on their unemployment checks. Adequate staffing has to be in place,” he added.
Boddie said the Labor Department can help create good jobs for Georgians by forging connections with groups for workers: “I’m also going to ramp up our workforce by partnering with organized labor, worker organizations and technical colleges to create more livable wage jobs for all Georgians,” he said.
Boddie told Atlanta Civic Circle that he views Thurmond as a big political influence, and said he’ll advocate for the state General Assembly to pass pro-worker legislation, like expanding parental leave, raising the state’s minimum wage, and addressing wage theft and employee misclassification.
In the last legislative session, the lawyer said, he helped pass the first workplace sexual harrassment law in Georgia “so that individuals who experience sexual harassment in the workplace can have a legal cause of action against their county or municipal employer if they face retaliation for reporting that incidence of harassment.”
If Boddie were to be elected and deliver on these promises, it would represent the type of informal power to expand the department’s role that Thurmond pursued in his stint as labor commissioner–but with a new focus on workers’ rights.