Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – A state House committee tabled legislation Wednesday creating a position of “chief labor officer” in Georgia after questions arose about how much authority the job would carry compared to the elected state commissioner of labor.

The bill, which the Senate passed 32-18 last week, is aimed at helping the labor department process the unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims it has been forced to handle during the coronavirus pandemic.

The chief labor officer would be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate committee with jurisdiction over labor issues. The labor officer would be required to produce progress reports on the agency’s handling of claims and help provide jobless Georgians with information on their claims.

The bill would give the chief labor officer the same level of authority as Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler, which he said could cause confusion.

“Their boss is the governor, not me,” Butler told members of the House Industry and Labor Committee Wednesday. “It puts me in a very precarious situation … if they did something to get us in trouble.”

Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, agreed the way the bill is currently worded could create an untenable situation.

“You’re putting two people in side by side with the same authority,” said Kirby, who made the motion to table the bill to give lawmakers more time to work on the language.

The bill represents the legislature’s attempt to respond to a barrage of complaints lawmakers have been receiving for months from constituents whose unemployment claims are being delayed.

“It simply puts another person there to assist [with] the large workflow that’s there,” said Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, the measure’s chief sponsor.

But Butler said the bill wouldn’t help his agency.

“Appointing somebody who has no experience in what we do to come over and ‘help’ us doesn’t do anything,” he said. “We are not going to have time to train them.”

Butler defended his employees as doing the best job they can given the record number of unemployment claims Georgians have filed since COVID-19 struck the state a year ago, forcing businesses to close and lay off workers.

With 4.7 million claims to process, the labor department is being bombarded with an average of 60,000 phone calls a day, Butler said. The department has brought on almost 600 additional employees, including retirees experienced in the job, to handle the workload, he said.

While the agency is processing claims filed by Georgians legally eligible for unemployment in a timely manner, about 80% of the claims being filed at this point in the pandemic are coming from people who either quit their jobs or were fired, making them ineligible for benefits, Butler said. He suggested it’s those people legislators are hearing from.

“My folks have sweated. They’ve worked hard,” Butler said. “I’m proud of them.”

Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, said the department still could use the help a chief labor officer would be able to provide. He said he sees the position as a liaison to give claimants information on their claims they’re not getting now.

“That has been the challenge for your department,” Jones told Butler. “I’m not sure that interface couldn’t be improved.”

“In the face of an unprecedented challenge, an unprecedented response is needed,” added Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville.

The fiscal 2021 mid-year budget Gov. Brian Kemp signed last month includes $100,000 to hire a chief labor officer. Because of the temporary nature of the labor department’s pandemic-driven workload, the position would sunset at the beginning of 2023.