Atlanta’s first-ever labor department will launch with the new fiscal year on July 1, with $500,000 allocated for staff salaries in Mayor Andre Dickens’ proposed FY24 budget.
But what will the new Department of Labor and Employment Services actually do? And will it be a radical departure from the city’s past dealings with labor issues or a fresh coat of paint on the status quo?
Here’s an explainer on what the city’s newest department is and what it could mean for workers.
Why a labor department?
Dickens made creating an Atlanta labor department a major plank of his mayoral campaign in 2021, saying it will show that the city “stands with and for workers and that we will continue to be the city of choice to start and grow businesses.”
Currently, Atlanta relies on state and federal agencies to oversee and enforce employers’ adherence to labor laws and regulations, including employees’ rights to organize – namely, the Georgia Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Labor Relations Board, which has a regional office in Atlanta.
The city’s primary labor-related initiative until now has been WorkSource Atlanta, which provides job training and employment services. In 2019, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms integrated the program with the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta. WorkSource Atlanta will be transferred to the city’s new labor department on July 1.
While workforce development programs are popular in many American cities, their focus is supplying employers with workers and workers with jobs, not enforcing labor laws that protect workers. What’s more, they can facilitate connecting to jobs that may pay low wages and have poor working conditions. In other words, they fix people on behalf of companies wanting to hire, instead of fixing jobs on behalf of workers.
Instead, municipal labor departments oversee and enforce labor and employment laws and regulations under their jurisdiction. For instance, New York City has an Office of Labor Relations, Chicago has an Office of Labor Standards, and Philadelphia has a Department of Labor.
What will Atlanta’s new labor department do?
Quite a lot once it gets up and running and fully staffed, says Humeta Embry, the department’s Labor Liaison Officer for the city of Atlanta, who is its first and only employee so far. Embry, who joined the city in December, was previously the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1644, which represents employees of the city of Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County.
The mayor will hire two additional employees for the new department, including a commissioner. This is a cabinet–level position that will report to the mayor’s chief of staff, Odie Donnell. Here’s what it will handle.
- Represent the city in internal labor relations: Coordinate with public-sector unions that represent city of Atlanta employees over their agreements with the city and represent the Mayor’s Office in labor-related matters at Atlanta City Council meetings. “That could be with the [Atlanta Fire Department], the police, AFSCME. I’ll sit at the table and see how we can work together,” said Embry.
- Act as a conduit between private-sector unions and the mayor’s office. “We’re in a unique position in partnering with both labor and business. You can’t have business without labor, so [we’ll focus] on building those relationships and getting the key players to the table to have critical conversations about what’s needed on both ends,” Embry said.
- Escalate workplace complaints to the Georgia Department of Labor. “We have different issues being brought to our attention as it relates to wage theft, and safety on worksites when it comes to building trades, so we’ll make sure they get the attention they deserve with the state,” Embry said.
- Examine fair labor practices for private-sector companies and nonprofits and local government organizations. “We’ll educate on how to [follow] labor laws, fair labor practices, and share data and more information, even if that’s signage in an office,” said Donnell, the mayor’s chief of staff.
- Oversee existing workforce development programs: Worksource Atlanta and the city’s youth employment services.
- Share employment-related data: The city has research and analysis on labor market trends, workforce demographics, and economic indicators, Donnell said. “That’s great for us to have; we’re one of the largest employers in metro Atlanta. But mom-and-pop shops and others need to have that info too, when it comes to being competitive and growing a business.”
How much will it cost?
The city of Atlanta’s proposed 2024 fiscal year budget allocates $500,000 to fund salaries for the Labor and Employment Services Department, a very small fraction of the $790 million general fund budget.
Dickens said the new department will have a $9.4 million budget when he announced it in December. That includes $6.2 million in federal funding for WorkSource Atlanta, additional federal money from the city’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds, and $2 million for a workforce training center from the city’s Gulch redevelopment deal. (The $2 million is part of the $33.5 million for housing and jobs that developer Centennial Yards Company paid the city in 2021 in a deal worth up to $1.9 billion in public financing for the Gulch mixed-use project downtown.)
How big of a deal is this?
It depends on who you ask.
Donnell calls the Labor Department more of a rebrand than a reorganization. “It’s almost the same organization [as WorkSource Atlanta] with a heck of a lot more capacity and a rebrand to make the services more attractive for the public,” he said.says D
But Embry calls it a game-changer for Atlanta workers and unions. “It’s a very, very big deal to labor and the community,” she said. “It gives voice to the voiceless, especially as it relates to enforcement, because there can be retaliation on the job. If you speak out and the boss finds out, it can mean you’re terminated, hours will be reduced, or you’ll be harassed. Instead of that individual standing alone, I can help stand in their place for them and be that voice.”
Sandra Williams, president of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, is optimistic about the new labor department but said she’s waiting to see who the city hires as commissioner.
“The department, in theory, provides a great opportunity for us to talk about our strategies with the mayor and his staff and come back fairly quickly with a response or a plan that we can both work on together to strengthen the city of Atlanta,” she said.
”Once the director is selected, then we can determine whether it is [merely] symbolic or not,” Williams added.
Williams says she would welcome having weekly or biweekly meetings with the Labor Department to talk about initiatives to increase union participation in Atlanta, which is very low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual labor report, the percentage of Georgians who belong to unions continued to decline slightly last year, dropping from 4.8% to 4.4%.
The 2024 budget is due to be finalized during the June 20 city council meeting, which includes funding to pay for the Labor Department’s staff compensation.
Residents can address city staff and elected officials during the public comment portion of full City Council meetings, which typically occur at 1 p.m. on the first and third Monday of each month inside City Hall.