Labor commissioner meets with area business people
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Mark Butler has been making changes at Georgia’s Department of Labor ever since he came on as commissioner in January 2011 — and he’s got more work to do.
Butler spoke Thursday at a dinner hosted by the South Metro Human Resources Association, in partnership with the Newnan/ Peachtree City Area Employer Committee, the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce, and the Fayette Chamber of Commerce.
Mainly because it “allows me to ask you your opinions and also to get your questions,” Butler said.
“And, most importantly, I love to hear your complaints.”
“One thing I’ve found out, in business and in politics, if you are smart about things, you want to know what you are doing wrong,” he said. Sometimes, you can’t always see what you are doing wrong — but your customers do. “And those would be the people in this room,” he said.
Knowing what you are doing wrong is “the only way you’re going to get better.”
Butler served eight years in the Georgia General Assembly before running for Labor Commissioner. He said, when he was running, people kept asking him why in the world he wanted to head the Georgia Department of Labor. “You’re going into the worst mess humanly possible,” they told him. The office had a huge debt to the federal government for the unemployment compensation fund, plus a high unemployment rate.
Things have improved since Butler took office when it comes to unemployment, and manufacturing is one the brightest spots, he said. Most of the job growth — 80 percent — has come from existing businesses.
“Our job is to make sure we’re doing what we need to do so we don’t inhibit that growth,” Butler said.
To deal with the deficit in the unemployment insurance fund, the total weeks of state unemployment were reduced from 26 weeks to 20 weeks. It can go down to 14 weeks, based upon the unemployment rate. They also changed the rates employers paid.
“But we also started looking at fraud and abuse,” Butler said. They found there was plenty of that going on. There were also overpayments.
“We finally got approval of a program” that allows the DOL to go after the tax refunds of people who owe them money. “We could not go after that before,” he said. The state will be getting about $16 million in seized refunds this year, according to Butler.
The state’s debt is now about $540 million, and “by late fall 2014 we should have it paid off … and on our way to add money back” to the state’s unemployment trust fund, he said. “That is pretty quick to pay back about a billion dollars.”
Butler wants to make sure the DOL does a better job “on our terminations” — that is, determining whether people are truly entitled to unemployment payments.
“I view unemployment insurance as a business, like an insurance policy. Just like any other policy, you guys are the policy-holders,” Butler said. “You buy this policy to insure your employees in case, God forbid, you have to lay them off. It’s not for people who get fired or try to game the system. We’re going to work on that.”
Butler said his office is also working on trying to “get Georgia back to work.”
He and his staff “went around and started talking to businesses all over Georgia.”
At the time, the state’s unemployment rate was over 10 percent. But “it seemed like every employer we stopped and talked to was hiring — everybody we talked to said we’re trying to hire, but we’re having a hard time finding people to fill these jobs; we can’t find the skilled individuals.”
“I said, ‘we can help with that,’” Butler said. The DOL is working with the state’s technical college system to train workers.
“If you have a need for a certain number of employees and are not finding the skills you need, the technical colleges will change what they do and help train those individuals,” Butler said. There is a lot of money out there for certain skills, Butler said.
“Georgia is in a good position to help with those hard skills. We’re seeing a lot of good jobs that we didn’t teach anymore come back — like tech programming. We had given up on those kinds of jobs.”
Another thing they found when talking to employers was kind of a surprise, Butler said — the lack of soft skills.
Butler said when he talks about soft skills, people often ask, “What are you talking about?”
At first, he didn’t know what that meant either.
“We call that something else where I’m from, we call that common sense,” Butler said.
“Manners,” said someone in the audience.
“Yeah, that works, too,” replied Butler.
Soft skills include work ethic, being on time, dressing appropriately, and the like.
There is a huge soft skills gap, he said. “That seemed kind of daunting, especially when I think about common sense. Because my daddy always said you can’t teach common sense. I hope he’s wrong.”
So they started the Georgia Best program. It started in 20 high schools as a pilot program to “work with our young people to help them understand the soft skills they are going to need to be successful.”
There are several criteria and the students are graded on observations by their teachers.
“It’s working. The kids are responding to it,” Butler said. The program is now in 150 schools, and “the schools love it,” he said. He thinks there are two major reasons that they love it: “one, it’s working, and number two, it’s free.”
When people hear about the program, one of the first things they ask is “Why are you doing this? This is not the government’s job. It’s supposed to be taught at home,” Butler said.
“I said, you’re 100 percent correct. However, it’s not happening” at home.
Butler also told the crowd that, when it comes to helping people who are looking for jobs, the state’s number one priority is veterans. There’s a new program for veterans aged 35 to 60 who have exhausted their GI Bill money. The program provides up to 12 months of additional training.
Butler also answered questions Thursday, most regarding unemployment insurance.
In the past, one man said, those collecting payments had to prove they were looking for jobs. “All of a sudden, a crisis hits” and those requirements are no longer in place.
“We are in the process of reinstating that,” Butler said. “A lot of the processes that were used to keep up with all that went away,” he said. “We’ve had to literally rebuild all those processes.”
There were also questions about the appeals process for those denied unemployment payments.
“Does it ever end?” one person asked. “Somebody who didn’t show up to appeals hearing gets to do it again.”
One man said a person’s reason for not showing up was that he overslept.
In cases like that, “let us know what the cause was,” Butler said. There are legitimate reasons for missing a hearing, like a sick child.
The department is looking at ways to do hearings over the phone or through video chat. That would be especially beneficial in south Georgia, where people may have to drive an hour-and-a-half to get to a hearing.
“We decided we were going to up and change that,” Butler said. But then he found that the DOL was sued several years ago and signed an agreement to do all hearings in person.
“Apparently I’ve got to get around this court agreement we signed… I’m trying to figure out how to go back and change that,” he said.
Butler told those attending that, if they ever need assistance, “please do not hesitate to call the commissioner’s office.”
“You should get a live person almost anytime,” Butler said. If the phones aren’t answered, eventually “it rolls to my office” and he may be the one answering the phone. “I think I’ve done that a few times. It really freaks people out,” he said.
Oftentimes, they don’t believe it is really him.