Legislative Luncheon Focuses on Labor
Labor and the workforce were hot topics at the Greater Vidalia Chamber’s annual Legislative Luncheon on Thursday, January 4, as Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Bruce Thompson, State Representative Leesa Hagan, and State Senator Blake Tillery all shared discussions which they believe the Capitol will have about the workforce’s growing issues.
Thompson addressed the audience as the event’s keynote speaker, as he detailed the past, present, and future status of the Department of Labor. According to Thompson, who assumed the role as Labor Commissioner in 2023, several changes had to be made to the Department within the last year because of issues that arose during the last 4 years, which he said were a direct reflection of the pandemic.
“To put that in perspective, roughly 250,000 unemployment claims are filed in Georgia every year, but when the pandemic hit, that rose to over 4 million in one month,” he emphasized. “Now, it’s government, and government is typically not equipped to handle things like that. In a private sector, we build ourselves where we have crisis management and we continued from page
can respond. Sometimes, we do it well, but we are equipped to respond – we don’t get to just go ask for more money. We certainly were not equipped for that.”
The Commissioner shared that during the pandemic, the Department had also not run their business very efficiently, as they provided seemingly unlimited funds to several struggling businesses. Thus, he stated that 2023 had to serve as a year of stabilization, where he and other Department leaders had to assess the challenges and status of the agency.
“It was kind of like the military – we had to go in and make a quick assessment of how things are and make a plan of how to respond, and then you go and execute. We sought to identify the right people to put in the right place and then empower them to make the right decisions,” Thompson explained.
One type of employee which Thompson said he struggled with was individuals who did not help to solve issues within the Department, but criticized those who did. He said these employees challenged him, as he had been told that you could not terminate those within a state agency; however, because of his background in the private sector, Thompson took a new approach to the issue. “It was tough to take and do a turnaround in a state agency. It takes a strong leadership style, but then you have to add in grace and patience,” he commented.
Some of the other issues addressed during 2023 included building employees confidence to work efficiently in their roles and addressing properties throughout the state which the Department had neglected. Yet, Thompson said the biggest issue he faced was updating procedures within the agency.
“The big thing that affects you is we had to address processes – processes that arguably had not been touched in around 15 years with a system that was built in 1972,” the commissioner explained. “We had one individual who was retired that we had to bring back that understands the code for the Department of Labor’s unemployment system, that can pull the code and interpret it to give it to the state auditor – one person.”
He added, “Our task is monumental and we have to figure out how we continue to take a unique strategy to quickly turn that around.”
Therefore, this upcoming year will bring these changes into action, Thompson said. “We’ve gone through stabilization in 2023. We’ve made some of the necessary changes with people. We have put training programs in place; we have done testing on every single person out in the field with competency and other things, and then did training on those efficiencies. 2024 is the year of execution. Now that we’ve stabilized and now that we have the right people, now we go to work.”
“Most people think the Department of Labor is about unemployment claims,” he continued. “If you’re unemployed, you file a claim; if it’s a legitimate claim, you get paid. We’re arguably one of the least tenured states when it comes to benefits, and we try to get you back to work. The one thing that everyone of us are experiencing in here is a shortage of workforce.”
Yet, even with that abundance of unemployed, Thompson claimed that filling vacant positions within the workforce is still a challenge because of the rate of change within labor. “The challenge is the environment is radically changing. The individual that knew one job may not be equipped to do the next one. So, we have to get our schools where we are addressing people. You can no longer go to a high school junior or senior and start talking about their future – their destiny is already set. You have to get to these individuals at 5th grade and 6th grade to let them know the environment wants them, and you start helping them with that path then – that is a change in mindset,” he remarked.
Some ways in which businesses must change to improve the workforce are improving ways of connecting veterans with employers and connecting senior citizens with available jobs. “The one thing our state is lacking is our connection to our seniors who are retiring. In our state in the next 24 months, we will have 110,000 retire,” he told the audience. “Just because you are retired does not mean you don’t want to work. It means, ‘I don’t want to keep working in that pace in that job.’ So, you create environments where you can connect 20-25 hours.”
Another area of needed change in which the Department of Labor is focusing on this year is improved employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. “We have 15,000 individuals every year who come out of the state custody back into society – it is not federal, and it is not local. We can brag about ourselves, and we have a lot of great things happening in our state – but I don’t know that I would brag about us having a reintegration rate of 50% back into society,” Thompson emphasized. He told the audience that a combination of a desire to give grace and second chances to people, along with the need for a workforce, should inspire employers to want to capitalize on the opportunity of those reintegrating into civilian life.
He explained that the Department once had a program to connect those leaving incarceration with employers, but that program had dissolved. Thompson said many within the Department spent the year interviewing those who had been released from prison and employers within the state and learned that the largest issue that caused the program’s demise was that employers were not suited to have someone who was incarcerated within their workforce because those individuals were accustomed to extremely structured environments and struggled to adapt. To fix this issue, Thompson and the Department of Labor have created the Walking the Last Mile program, a voluntary 13-week course that helps those reintegrating into society to understand how to connect with others and who they are so that they may learn to work efficiently in society. “Being a felon is not who they are – it’s a consequence of their actions and what they did,” he emphasized. The program is currently in its first cohort, which will graduate within the next few months.
Overall, Thompson discussed the importance of leadership, as he praised the work of former State Senator Tommie Williams, State Representative Leesa Hagan, and State Senator Blake Tillery. “Leadership matters, does it not? It does. You look around the room – this great community didn’t just happen. Georgia’s football team didn’t just happen,” he told attendees. “Hats off to you for having leaders who not only lead with integrity and from a Christian view, but represent you very well in Atlanta.”
During her address at the Luncheon, State Representative Leesa Hagan gave an overview of several topics she believed would be discussed during the state congress’s session this year, and spoke to the audience about a few bills which she is currently working on.
One topic which Hagan said she expects to discuss during Session is Certificates of Need. “If you don’t work in the healthcare industry, you may not know what that is, but in a nutshell, there is a regulatory board in Atlanta that determines whether or not certain healthcare services or providers can begin certain healthcare projects, services, building projects, expansion projects, etc. – they cannot do that without getting a certificate of need,” she explained. “Critics argue that process limits competition and innovation, but proponents of it believe that it is important because it is necessary for maintaining a balance in efficient healthcare system and for maintaining rural hospitals.”
Hagan has extensively studied the topic, as her district includes two rural hospitals – Memorial Health Meadows Hospital in Vidalia and Dorminy Medical Center in Ben Hill County. She stated that both houses of the state congress had study committees – in which she served in the House committee and Memorial Health Meadows Hospital CEO Matt Hasbrouck served in the senate committee — over the past summer to learn more about the topic.
“We’ve talked with and heard from dozens of interests and stakeholders in the healthcare industry and heard their testimonies. I think that we are going to see a lot of passionate debate and discussion over this issue within the two houses and in the assembly,” she assured.
Another topic which Hagan believes will be discussed during the Session is the legalization of gambling – specifically, sports betting. “It’s an issue that comes up each year because the proponents say they want it in order to get that tax revenue and spend it,” she remarked.
Hagan continued, “I’m opposed to legalizing sports betting, not because I care if an individual wants to do that with their time and their money – I’m opposed to it because the industry targets young people. The reason it does is that we know the science behind brain development – a human’s brain is not fully developed until they are between 20 and 25 years old. For females, it is younger; for males, it is closer to that 25-year mark. The science tells us that if a habitual behavior or addiction is going to happen in a person’s life, it’s typically going to begin when they are young.”
She emphasized the need for this habitual behavior for the industry to profit off of this legalization. “The sports betting industry doesn’t make money off of people who are casual betters – [those] who make a couple times a year on a couple different games and move on with [their] lives. 60% of the profit from that industry come from only 5% of the users of those apps. So, no matter the intentions of those that bring these bills, I feel like it is dangerous because you are targeting young people. If you don’t have people habitually betting, you don’t make the money in that industry.”
“As a mom, but also as a person that does not want to see people used, I feel like it is something that we do not need to legalize,” she added before encouraging those who feel differently to speak with her on the issue.
Workforce development is expected to be a hot topic within the congressional session, according to Hagan. “You’re going to see multiple bills that come out of multiple committees that have an aim of improving our workforce situation within the state,” she explained. “There is not part of the state – there is not an industry within this state – that is not short of workers. We are short of qualified, educated workers – that is a topic that is discussed at every meeting that I’m in. Every study committee talks about it.”
Some of the legislation and ideas expected to be discussed involving work development include the improvement of the licensing process and the process of connecting graduating high school students with postsecondary institutions. She highlighted the Georgia Match Program, which began in October and send over 120,000 high school seniors within the state a letter detailing several universities and technical colleges in which they had already received acceptance, so they may know their options.
“I think that that’s going to go a long way to get people plugged in while they’re young to the places they best fit,’ Hagan commented.
She also emphasized the importance of encouraging students to enter the technical college system within the state. “For too long, I think we have let our technical college system as being looked at as the second choice, but it really needs to be the first choice if we are taking about filling roles that are in high demand because those are the jobs that they are having the hardest time finding jobs for and that we need to fill the quickest,” Hagan said.
As for bills which she is currently working on, Hagan told attendees that she will be helping to draft legislation that addresses a variety of topics, such as the reintegration of the incarcerated into the workforce and more transportation options for cottage food retailers. Another bill which she is helping to draft is the legalization of the color blaze pink for hunting safety gear, which she said was inspired by a young constituent within the state who did not like blaze orange and researched to find other states allowed the bright pink to be used in place of orange. Hagan said that she believes this change will encourage more women to hunt and will alleviate farmers’ struggle with the overpopulation of deer within the state.
Senator Blake Tillery began his address by reflecting on his 8 years within the legislature and 5 years chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he said classifies him as one of the most experienced members of the congress, as the average tenure for state congressmen is 6.8 years. “It’s hard to believe you have allowed me this long to represent you in Atlanta – thank you,” he remarked.
Tillery emphasized that there is never a way to truly know what will be discussed during the session. “Usually, whatever happens on Day 39 or 40 is definitely different than what you think it’s going to be on Day 17,’ he commented.
Yet, the Senator stated that he believes the majority of what the state will handle during session will come from issues of growth and inflation.
According to Tillery, continued from page
one of the biggest challenges within the state — and specifically, the local area – is the creation of 16,000 jobs in Bryan County with the new Hyundai plant. “Local industries are a little bit concerned. When [this plant] comes in and pays people around $35 per hour, they wonder can customers handle the increase in prices that you will have to charge to compete with that. It’s scary,’ he told the audience.
He also shared that the traffic caused by this growth in industry along I-16 is also presenting changes that could be frightening to the area. “The DOT traffic analysis for all the new investment from Bulloch County to the port says that by 2030 or 2040, it is projected to take you 2 hours and 20 minutes to get from Statesboro to the ports. That means that I could leave my home in Vidalia and be at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta before I could leave my home in Vidalia and be in Savannah,” he explained.
“I would much rather see these problems of a state of growth than some other states are seeing because of negative growth, but they are problems, and we do not face them head on, they will be issues that keep our community from continuing to grow,” he summarized.
Another issue which Tillery expects to be discussed during the session is literacy, which he argues is the scariest issue currently in the state. “Our schools’ numbers statewide show that only 1 in 3 children read on grade level,” he said.
Tillery added his own experience with this issue, sharing how his 9-year-old foster child could not read upon arrival at his home; yet, after learning, the skill changed the time taken to do homework daily from 4 hours to 2 hours. “If that kind of growth can happen for a 9 year old, what if we could replicate that across the 2/3 of children within in our state that are not reading on grade level? Imagine then what we are able to accomplish. Imagine then what a dent we will place on the workforce,” he told the audience.
The Senator also said that he expects issues to “trickle down” from the current federal gridlock, as he said that issues that are not handled at the federal level – such as immigration, workforce, and foreign ownership of local property – will need to be handled by the state.
“Local officials are nervous about things they have seen in our community – our public safety folks should be nervous,” Tillery shared. “I don’t think that I’m someone that’s ethnocentric – I’m not going to be nervous that someone doesn’t speak the same language that I do, but I do want to know what’s actually going on. It makes you nervous when some of these areas need 3 inch wells to make sure it cools in time. It makes you nervous when the amount of electricity used has your local fire department knowing that if that place catches on fire, the best they can do is get a quarter of a mile away and keep other things from burning. That’s scary – it’s nerve wracking, and its things the federal government has not addressed.”
Tillery spoke on the budget, saying he expected that the budget would be increased to $35 billion because of inflation and other issues. He said that 53% of that funding will go to education, and 23% will go to healthcare.
He concluded, sharing that he planned on working on bills regarding the foster child system, robo-calls, and lawyer advertisement.
Overall, the Luncheon serviced to allow the public an insight into the upcoming legislative session, and to speak directly to their leaders about the issues which the state is facing.