Risk without Reward: Georgia Workers Deserve Better

Key Takeaways

  • This Labor Day offers an opportunity to recalibrate our policy approach to better protect labor in our state while placing a mirror to reflect on the state’s harmful impulses to continue down a path of anti-labor policy choices.
  • GBPI envisions Georgia policies that foster worker power–equitable working conditions, livable pay, adequate unemployment protections and reemployment systems that bridge jobless workers to suitable jobs–which collectively boost economic mobility for all Georgians.

Worker Power Must Begin With a Safe Place to Work

The COVID pandemic exposed how Georgia leaders prioritize corporate interests over the health, racial and economic equity of everyday workers. Essential workers across the public and private sector, who are predominately Black and Latinx, have risked exposure to COVID infection or death to support Georgia families during the riskiest phases of economic recovery. State and local public sector workers have served increased public needs with smaller budgets. Among working parents and guardians, a disproportionate share of women have made employment sacrifices to carry heavier educational and caretaking responsibilities during the unpredictable redesign of education and care infrastructure. Meanwhile, during too many critical moments, state leaders have made policy choices that have weakened investments and protections for Georgia workers.

Nationwide, complaints about workplace safety and health hazards grew by more than 500 percent from April 2020 to March 2021.[1] And within certain essential industries during that same period, complaints grew by as much as 3,114 percent.[2] In Georgia, the data was even more concerning. Even months before the delta variant became the dominant COVID strand—one that is more contagious and can spread workplace infections more rapidly—Georgia maintained one of the highest infection rates and had massive COVID infection spread and deaths among poultry plant workers. By the beginning of 2021, Georgia, of all the states solely under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) jurisdiction, had the fifth-highest number of OSHA inspections with COVID-related citations.[3] Despite these striking numbers of complaints (which have continued to grow as of August), Georgia lawmakers passed and then extended a liability shield to employers through Georgia House Bill (HB) 112. Under this bill, workers will face a near-impossible standard to prove gross negligence if they contract COVID on the job. The shield will be in effect until July 2022. Lawmakers also neglected to pursue a state OSHA plan to more closely regulate workplace safety, despite federal OSHA reporting standards that have led to lax enforcement toward bad-actor employers.

All Involuntary Jobless Workers Must be Protected

Accepting the anecdotal and disproven narrative of widespread labor shortages, in June, state lawmakers prematurely severed pandemic Unemployment Insurance (UI) protections for an estimated 347,000 jobless Georgians, including 104,000 non-traditional workers who don’t typically qualify for UI, such as independent contractors, self-employed, part-time and gig workers. Labor Day marks the end of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) protections for non-traditional workers and all other pandemic UI programs across states that remained true to the CARES Act’s September 4 expiration. Unfortunately, many jobless workers have yet to find reemployment and will suffer further hardship, as countless Georgians, particularly non-traditional workers who have no other safety net, already have. UI enrollment data underscore this trend, with PUA claims from non-traditional workers making up nearly half of all claims filed in early June. In addition, regular UI enrollment data up to July reveal that UI enrollment declines have been more than two times slower for Black and Latinx workers compared to white and Asian workers.

PUA Expiration Left a Vacuum for UI to Return to Exclusionary, Racist Roots 

While UI is intended to replace a percentage of income for those who involuntarily lose work, sectors of the workforce overrepresented by workers of color have historically been excluded from these protections. These intentional choices have their roots in anti-Black policies. When the Unemployment Insurance system was created through the Social Security Act, lawmakers excluded agricultural and domestic workers—who comprised at least 60 percent of the Black workforce—from the programs’ protections. These systematic exclusions remain today through federal UI eligibility guidelines that include broad requirements for workers to show sufficient recent earnings history and that they lost work at no fault of their own. States can use these broad guidelines to create racist criteria that exclude workers of color who are low-paid, underemployed or have an inconsistent work history. These guidelines effectively bar protections for low-income occupations, independent contractors and gig workers, employment types that are overrepresented by workers of color.

This has resulted in states with high shares of Black workers typically having smaller shares of unemployed workers who receive UI benefits. According to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, Georgia ranks No. 3 in Black population share, while ranking No. 44 in the share of unemployed who receive benefits.

PUA benefits provided a temporary but decades-overdue anti-racist policy tool for these sectors of the workforce. Furthermore, they opened protections to those who are formerly incarcerated, young adults or women entering the labor force after pregnancy or unpaid caregiving responsibilities, many of whom are Georgians of color with limited work histories and low earnings.

Our Window to Worker Power is Now

The pandemic has given us hard lessons from our policy failures to protect the health of our workers, a model to protect a segment of jobless workers long pushed aside and countless voices among unprotected workers that may build upon small-but-mighty organized labor efforts to rally for stronger protections.

While the hopeful growth in union solidarity, despite Georgia’s anti-labor laws, may strengthen leverage within the state to advocate for labor protections that can improve workplace safety, policies must also be enacted to advance worker justice. There are also opportunities in the latest economic recovery legislation being negotiated by federal lawmakers. We sit on the cusp of a historic opportunity to expand UI eligibility through a permanent PUA program nationwide and to raise federal minimum standards for benefit levels and weeks of support available to the involuntary jobless. This could ensure our most vulnerable jobless workers—many of whom are women and people of color—are not left to weather economic downtowns that force them right back into jobs in which they are underpaid, risk their health and receive unstable hours and pay. A modernized system would also better prepare us for the next downturn and improve technological infrastructure at the Georgia Department of Labor so people can easily apply for and claim benefits.

Georgia can no longer be a great place to do business without also being a great place to work and raise a family. But we can only achieve this by curing ourselves of impulses that promote unbalanced policy choices that prioritize business interests over the public and economic health of our workforce. It is not too late for Georgia to change course.

[1] GBPI analysis of OSHA enforcement summary data, last retrieved at https://www.osha.gov/enforcement/covid-19-data#complaints_referrals

[2] Ibid

[3] GBPI analysis of OSHA COVID inspections data, last retrieved at https://www.osha.gov/enforcement/covid-19-data/inspections-covid-related-citations

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