Union workers protest Loeffler over unemployment benefits in Atlanta

Union-represented airport, hotel and retail workers protest outside the Atlanta office of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler on Aug. 11, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Dozens of airport, restaurant and hotel workers protested outside the Atlanta office of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., Tuesday over stalled talks in Congress on a new federal aid package amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talks over a second round of federal coronavirus aid hit a roadblock last week as Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Senate failed to strike an agreement over how much funding to send state and local governments and whether to reup the $600 weekly unemployment benefit.

That prompted President Donald Trump to issue executive orders on Saturday calling on states to issue eligible recipients $400 weekly unemployment checks starting this month, of which $100 would have to be covered by state funds.

The president also ordered federal housing officials to identify funding for homeowner and rental assistance, and for U.S. Treasury officials to defer payments on certain payroll taxes through the end of the year.

Loeffler, who is running a tight race to hold her Senate seat in the Nov. 3 general election, praised the president’s actions last Friday as talks in Congress fell short. She has supported passing new federal coronavirus aid funds that focus on boosting financial support for jobs, schools and health-care facilities, on top of divvying out unspent dollars from an earlier round of assistance passed in March.

Loeffler also brought legislation in June that would set the federal unemployment benefit at an amount equal to what workers were making while previously employed.

“Here in Georgia, we have thousands of jobs to be filled,” Loeffler said in a Fox News interview last Friday. “And sadly, millions have lost their jobs, but we need to make sure that we aren’t providing incentives for people to stay home.”

Union-represented workers in Atlanta protesting the lack of action on Congress’ part disputed that characterization Tuesday, arguing jobs in many industries like hotels and retail are still scarce and that the $600 weekly benefit has been essential to keep laid-off workers afloat.

Felicia Fashina, 55, said she has tried returning to her job at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport but that her employer has not brought back nearly as many workers as before the pandemic, forcing “skeleton crews” of shorthanded staff to juggle multiple tasks.

Now, her school loans and medical costs she covers for her elderly mother are piling up, even as she remains unable to afford a $500 monthly COBRA insurance payment offered by her employer to out-of-work staff.

“No one’s asking to get rich,” Fashina said. “We just want to survive, that’s all.”

Rodney Watts, 54, has also been unable to pay for COBRA insurance after being sent home from his 10-year job as an airport overnight supervisor in March amid the pandemic. While it would help, he is skeptical the reduced $400 weekly benefit will actually take effect.

“Is it going to go through?” Watts said. “There’s a lot of red tape behind it.”

Many critics of Trump’s executive order have questioned whether states like Georgia will be able to cover the 25% costs of the $400 weekly benefit, noting state governments are already facing huge budget cuts spurred by the economic slowdown.

New weekly unemployment claims in Georgia slowed earlier this month as initial claims filed in total since March 21 reached nearly 3.4 million, more than the state Department of Labor has handled during the last eight years combined.

The ongoing response to COVID-19 looks to be a major issue in the race for Loeffler’s Senate seat, to which she was appointed late last year following the decision by former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to retire due to health concerns.

Her main Republican opponent in the free-for-all special election, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has supported lowering the virus-prompted federal unemployment benefit or doing away with it entirely. The leading Democratic candidate in the race, Rev. Raphael Warnock, has called for the $600 weekly amount to remain in place.

Loeffler has also focused much of her campaign on policing issues and touting support for law enforcement agencies amid nationwide protests since June against police brutality and racial injustice.

In recent weeks, Loeffler has brought a legislative package in the Senate aimed at increasing penalties for criminal gang members, property destruction during protests and local governments that do not prosecute violent protesters and rioters.

Nearly two dozen candidates including Loeffler have qualified for the Nov. 3 special election to fill the remaining two years of the Senate term formerly held by Isakson. Candidates from all parties will be on the same ballot, and a runoff will be held in January if no candidate wins more than 50% of votes in November.

This story has been updated to include information on legislation Sen. Loeffler filed in June regarding unemployment benefits.

Early mail-in vote counting, online request portal OK’d for Nov. 3 election

Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Absentee ballots can be opened a week earlier than usual ahead of elections in Georgia following emergency steps the State Election Board took Monday to help ease a vote-tally bottleneck amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.

The board also gave Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office the green light to create an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots via the internet rather than by mail or with a county elections office.

The rule changes come as state and local election officials hustle to improve the voting process in Georgia during the pandemic, which drove voters to cast ballots by mail in historic volumes and spurred hours-long lines at polling places during the primary elections in June.

Instead of two weeks before an election, local ballot-counting officials will be able to start tallying mail-in votes three weeks prior, according to an emergency rule change the state board approved Monday.

The online portal, which the state will run as a centralized system rather than counties running their own portals, is currently in a testing phase and should be ready to roll out before the fall election, Raffensperger’s office said.

To get a ballot, a voter’s name, birth date and state driver’s license or ID card number submitted via the online portal will have to match exactly with that same info as logged in the state voter registration system. A signature match would not be needed.

Combined, the two measures approved at a state board meeting Monday aim to curb problems seen during the June 9 primary in several counties including Fulton County, where local officials struggled to process mail-in ballot requests and handle long lines spurred by distancing due to the virus.

Some counties like Fulton were overwhelmed by the huge number of absentee ballot requests that poured in ahead of the primary, causing delays in the turnaround time for voters to receive ballots. Many Atlanta-area voters never received a mail-in ballot at all due to the processing logjam.

Shortly after, Raffensperger’s office announced it would not send out absentee ballot request forms to all of Georgia’s roughly 7 million registered voters, as was done for the primary. Several counties have elected to send out request forms on their own.

More than 1 million Georgia voters cast absentee ballots during the primary, marking a quantum leap in the number of votes submitted by mail rather than in-person at the polls. State and local officials are anticipating even more mail-in votes for the November election with a presidential contest and two U.S. Senate seats on the Georgia ballot.

Georgia Democrats sue to curb long lines on Election Day

Voters wait in line outside a polling place in Atlanta during the primary election on June 9, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The Democratic Party of Georgia filed a lawsuit Thursday to force Georgia election officials to take steps to cut down long lines at voting precincts ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

The lawsuit comes after several Georgia counties saw long lines at polling places during the primary elections in June and distancing measures mandated to curb health risks from coronavirus continue posing challenges for voter access.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the lawsuit seeks a court order requiring more polling places, better equipment training, extra time to set up precincts, backup voting machines and clearer instructions on when to switch to emergency paper ballots.

The lawsuit lays blame on county and state election officials for the long lines, arguing poll closures and consolidations, equipment issues, lack of training for poll workers and little emergency technical assistance have worsened lines on Election Day.

Hours-long waits in line to cast ballots have the potential to pose not just an inconvenience but a source of disenfranchisement for Georgia voters, making it a legal matter that should be addressed in court, the lawsuit argues.

“Defendants’ systemic failures in election administration have led to long lines that have resulted in significant disenfranchisement of Georgia voters for over a decade now as voters who are forced to wait in line leave and many others never enter the line at all, deterred by the impending wait,” the lawsuit says.

Several Georgia voters joined the lawsuit along with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The lawsuit especially singles out Fulton County, which saw huge lines during the primary election in early June, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whose office has placed blame squarely on Fulton and a handful of other county election officials for local precinct problems.

Those problems are poised to be potentially worse for the Nov. 3 general election, when millions of voters are expected to head to polls during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the lawsuit argues. Long lines would pose health risks for elderly Georgians and those with chronic illnesses.

Responding to the lawsuit, Raffensperger’s office noted many duties like adding polling places and voting equipment fall to counties to implement but that the state had provided local officials with data to help make improvements to reduce long lines for the November election.

“We will work around the clock from here through the elections – under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic – to ensure that all eligible Georgia voters are informed fully about any polling place changes, that we have enough precincts and poll workers and that we do everything possible to minimize lines,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in a prepared statement.

Raffensperger’s office also criticized Democratic state lawmakers for opposing a bill brought in the 2020 legislative session that was originally aimed at reducing the size of any precincts that have long waits.

Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate voted against the initial version of the bill, arguing it was rushed through the session with little scrutiny and could end up curbing voter turnout in areas where precincts had been split.

However, that language was stripped from the bill in June and amended by the Republican-controlled Georgia House Governmental Affairs Committee to prohibit state and county officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballots, a move Democrats saw as a bid to stifle mail-in voting amid the pandemic.

The bill never came to the House floor for a vote after passing out of committee.

This story has been updated to include additional background on the precinct legislation filed in the 2020 session.

COVID-19 liability protections take effect for Georgia hospitals, businesses

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Georgia hospitals and businesses are set to gain new liability protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic through legislation Gov. Brian Kemp signed this week.

A bill Kemp signed into law Wednesday aims to shield businesses and health-care facilities in Georgia from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus in all but the worst negligence or recklessness cases.

The liability protections take effect immediately and will apply for anyone who contracts coronavirus until July 14, 2021.

Business representatives including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have hailed the measure as a means for a range of enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums to feel assured they will not face crippling litigation due to coronavirus.

But unions and worker advocates have worried employees in the state will be left in the lurch as thousands of Georgia’s front-line and low-wage workers struggle to keep themselves safe from the virus either in the workplace or the courts.

COVID-19 liability protections were a contentious source of last-minute debate in the Georgia General Assembly as state lawmakers wrapped up the 2020 legislative session in late June.

Democratic lawmakers condemned the measure, joining union representatives in calls for more safety considerations to help workers.

Conversely, many Republican lawmakers in the state Senate argued the bill would be too weak to fully protect businesses and hospitals by making “gross negligence” the minimum threshold for bringing a damage claim.

That threshold marked a compromise between health-care professionals, business leaders and trial attorneys struck during the final days of the session. Attorneys on both sides of the issue have described gross negligence as a high legal hurdle but not impossible to meet.

The session, which was paused in March as coronavirus cases soared, also saw passage of a tax credit program for businesses that produce protective gear like masks and hand sanitizer and an extension of expanded state unemployment benefits in place since March.

Rules on prescription drug prices tightened in Kemp-signed bill

Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Wednesday tightening rules on third-party companies that play a role in negotiating pharmaceutical drug prices between insurers and local pharmacies in Georgia.

The bill Kemp signed into law requires companies called pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs) to set drug prices within a national average, a move aimed at reining in excessively high prescription prices.

PBMs act as go-betweens for prescribers and insurance companies that contract with health insurers to negotiate lower drug prices for patients. But critics have long accused them of muddying the process, prompting increases in drug prices and unnecessary delays in filling prescriptions.

Senate Bill 313, by state Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, also forces PBMs to offer up full rebates to health plans that are typically given by drugmakers, rather than pocketing a portion.

And PBMs will need to submit to new audits by the state Department of Community Health as well as requirements for publishing data on prescription prices online.

The bill mirrored a separate measure introduced during the 2020 legislative session by state Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, who called the drug-price rules a compromise between PBMs, insurers, pharmacies and state officials.

“[This] will be the toughest PBM legislation in the nation,” Knight said in June. “We can finally bring transparency to drug pricing and give choice to our patients.”

PBM representatives were less enthused by the bill’s signing Wednesday. The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, representing PBMs, argued the new rules could increase drug prices and hamstring negotiating powers PBMs use to drive down costs.

“[The bill] takes a step in the wrong direction by undermining the tools that pharmacy benefit managers, PBMs, use to reduce drug costs,” said spokesman Greg Lopes.

Burke’s bill was among the top priorities for Georgia Senate Republican leaders in this year’s session, along with measures to curb the practice of surprise hospital charges.

It followed legislation signed last year aimed at preventing PBMs from steering patients to associated pharmacies with potentially higher costs.

This week, Kemp also signed legislation by state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, that seeks to bolster those rules on steering and relax some penalties for pharmacies that are audited by PBMs.