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Georgia Senate looking to help labor agency cope with pandemic

Georgia Senate budget writers voted Thursday to give the state Department of Labor some help handling an unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $26.3 billion mid-year budget that adds $49,729

to hire a chief labor officer to oversee unemployment insurance requests, including financial audits.

“The employees, who have been working long hours, [should] have the resources, direction and management they need to make sure they’re in the best position to do their jobs,” said committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

The state has paid out more than $17.5 billion in state and federal ben efits to more than 4.3 million Georgians since COVID-19 struck Georgia nearly a year ago, more than the last nine years combined.

The volume of claims has inundated the labor department, forcing the agency to bring on additional employees and redirect some current workers from other responsibilities to processing claims.

A backlog in handling claims prompted a lawsuit last month filed by a half dozen unemployed Georgians seeking a court order requiring the labor department to process claims in a timely manner.

The additional position senators added to the mid-year budget is subject to approval by the General Assembly in separate legislation.

For the most part, the Senate committee signed off on mid-year spending additions recommended by Gov. Brian Kemp to restore cuts in the fiscal 2021 budget the legislature adopted last June. State tax revenues have been coming in higher than expected despite the pandemic-driven economic downturn, giving lawmakers leeway to ramp up spending.

The mid-year budget restores $567 million in cuts imposed last year on K-12 schools and $70 million to fully fund enrollment growth at Georgia’s public colleges and universities. It also includes $20 million the governor requested to expand broadband connectivity in rural Georgia.

“That broadband money will help rural areas that we know now are not connected,” Tillery said.

The committee also supported changes the state House of Representatives made to Kemp’s mid-year budget, including $39.6 million for new school buses, which have been doing triple duty during the pandemic, transporting students, carrying meals to students taking classes online and serving as WiFi hot spots in areas with inadequate wireless service.

Senators also endorsed a House proposal to use existing funds to give correctional officers in the state prison and juvenile detention systems a 10% raise effective April 1. Both workforces are suffering extremely high turnover rates.

The Senate committee approved some budget additions of its own, redirecting $11 million in bond financing to the Department of Public Health for technology improvements to help the agency track Georgia’s COVID-19 response.

“This is an unprecedented point in time,” said Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta. “We’re doing what we can to help in their efforts to protect Georgia.”

Senators also added $92.2 mil- lion to the $52.7 million the House

had put up to fund road construction projects and $200,000 to the $286,000 the House had put toward the Department of Public Health’s budget. The additional funds would let the agency hire five new managers to help with the COVID-19 response, rather than the three positions the House had funded.

The Senate panel also kicked in $1.25 million to the $1.75 million

the House had appropriated to help the Georgia Agricultural Exposition Authority offset losses from the pandemic. The facility in Perry was forced to cancel the annual Georgia National Fair last fall because of COVID- 19.

The full Senate is expected to take up the mid-year budget early next week.

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