YARBROUGH COLUMN: Labor commissioner’s good deed hard to swallow

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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It is said that no good deed goes unpunished. If you don’t believe that, ask Mark Butler, commissioner of the beleaguered Georgia Department of Labor.

These have not been easy times for Georgia DOL. Like most everything and everybody these days, the department has been hammered by the pandemic, as have those it is pledged to serve.

In the days before COVID-19, the Georgia Department of Labor was processing some 5,000 new unemployment claims each week. With the pandemic’s arrival came an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims. More than 624,000 people reported losing their jobs in April 2020 alone – according to my abacus, that is a bit more than a 1,200 percent increase – putting major stress on the state’s unemployment system and on those that administer it.

According to reports, the Georgia Department of Labor has paid out over $22 billion in benefits and has processed nearly 4.9 million unemployment insurance claims, more than in the previous nine years combined before the pandemic. What’s more, it has had to deal with thousands of frustrated citizens who have been unable to get workers on the phone or their emails answered. Many face eviction or their cars repossessed. Some have taken to pinning notes on the doors of local Department of Labor offices begging for callbacks.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published a report saying the DOL has only half the staff it had in 2010 (2,219 to 1,066 in 2020). Despite an effort to hire staff and induce the return of retirees, the department has grown to only 1,087 currently. Several hundred temporary workers were hired but many left saying they couldn’t handle the workload and the stress that goes with it.

This is where a good deed comes in that proceeds to blow up like a cheap balloon. To show his hard-working employees he appreciated their efforts, beginning in March 2020 Butler provided them free lunches daily for more than a year and at a cost of over $1.1 million. The problem is that this good deed was paid for taxpayer-funded state and federal money, much of which was earmarked for unemployment benefits. Chew on that for a moment.

A state audit obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Butler’s actions “a violation of state purchasing rules.”  In other words, there is no such thing as a free lunch – at least not on the taxpayer’s dime, no matter how worthy the cause might seem to be.

Commissioner Butler defended his decision, telling the AJC he received permission to provide the free meals from Comm. Alex Atwood, head of the Department of Administrative Services, which oversees state spending. DOL says they were given permission to treat the meals as “urgent” and free from the state’s normal requisition process. DOAS said the meals became “routine planned events” exceeding what they thought was a limited request.

“This isn’t something we did on our own without asking,” Butler said. “I fully explained to him the reasons why we were doing it — to keep our people safe, to minimize bringing the COVID-19 virus into our buildings and to require all the individuals who work here to work all through the day.”

Georgia Inspector General Scott McAfee, a former federal prosecutor, clearly wasn’t swallowing that explanation. He classified the program as a waste of taxpayer money.

In a report to Gov. Brian Kemp, McAfee, a former federal prosecutor, said the meals purchasxwed at each of the department’s 41 statewide offices showed “no distinction based on the location of an office, or the role, age or health condition of any particular employee.

“Notably, DOL never supported these expenditures by claiming that they resulted in increased productivity,” McAfee said. “By offering to purchase meals, DOL removed any incentive for individual employees to prepare and pack their own meal, a practice that is generally more cost-effective and efficient when compared to retail purchases.”

Butler said, “I’ll stand up for our folks here. I’m going to take care of them because they were taking care of Georgia.”  Well-meaning, but likely falling on deaf ears of those Georgians seeking help from his department and feeling like they have not been taken care of.

What Comm. Mark Butler did not do was ask himself what kind of message he was sending to a pandemic-stressed public by giving his staff free meals for a year with a million dollars of taxpayer money. This is one good deed that could get him eaten alive in next year’s elections. Just some food for thought.