Moderated by Rick Badie
Should seasonal workers be able to collect unemployment checks in their downtime? The federal government recently ordered the Georgia Department of Labor to rescind a ruling and pay teachers and contract workers lost unemployment benefits. A New Jersey assemblyman writes about a bill to curb payments in his state. I write about similar efforts elsewhere. Feel free to comment below.
By Rick Badie
New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco has an offer for Georgia legislators: He and his Garden State colleagues would be happy to let the General Assembly copy a proposed bill to bar seasonal workers from collecting jobless benefits. In February, Bucco joined two other representatives to introduce legislation that would require their state labor agency to identify specific seasonal jobs and to deny workers who fill those jobs unemployment claims in the off-season.
“We have a situation where school crossing guards are hired by municipalities and some by school districts,” he told me. “Once school ends, their services are no longer needed and they collect unemployment. It has become expensive. When you take these seasonal jobs, you know they are seasonal. You shouldn’t expect to collect unemployment.”
The issue has surfaced in Georgia as it tries to curtail expenses in a stalled economy and shore up the unemployment insurance fund.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler on Jan. 30 instituted a benefits change that denied summer jobless pay to thousands of bus drivers, cafeteria workers and private school teachers. It was unfair, he explained, to pay seasonal benefits when public school system employees don’t receive them. In stepped the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency determined Georgia had violated workplace laws and recently ordered Butler to rescind his ruling. State labor officials have turned to Georgia’s attorney general for guidance.
When news of the decision became public, Butler said: “We were treating people employed directly by a public school system, or a university, differently than somebody who was contracted by a school system. In cases where you have a great probability of returning to contracted work, then you’re not eligible for unemployment.”
Meanwhile, supporters of Georgia’s seasonal workers say many have been unable to pay bills. Some have faced eviction notices and endured electricity shutoffs, according to Roger Sikes, organizing director for Atlanta Jobs with Justice.
New Jersey, Georgia and other cash-strapped states are trying to limit seasonal unemployment pay. According to CNN Money, laborers in Massachusetts, Colorado and Pennsylvania can no longer apply for benefits unless they’re laid off during the typical working season. The states, according to CNN, define “seasons” differently, based on the industry. The workers in New Jersey, for example, work from May to September attending to the shore’s summer tourists. (Georgia’s seasonal workers who would be impacted by the federal government’s order work nine months and are idle three.)
Bucco was unaware of the federal decision regarding Georgia. Still, he said he was confident the bill introduced in his state would pass muster. “We drafted our legislation and checked it against the federal regulations and rules,” he said. “We got a determination that it is okay. We hope to get it out of committee and voted on.” Then he added: “If the legislators down there are interested, we have no qualms with them copying our work. We think it will withstand a federal challenge.”
By Sean Kean
My coastal legislative district on the New Jersey Shore borders the Atlantic Ocean and includes several beach towns. These towns have a busy summer season when tourists come to the shore to enjoy the beach, restaurants, amusement rides and other seasonal attractions.
Since New Jersey has 130 miles of coastline, there is a substantial industry based around the summer season and the businesses and tourists that frequent the area. This industry includes beach badge checkers, lifeguards and maintenance workers.
Many seasonal workers are entitled to collect unemployment insurance compensation in the off-season (teachers are not). The summer season extends from Memorial Day until Labor Day, approximately 12 weeks.
As a lifelong resident of the area, I know the importance of maintaining qualified lifeguard staffs during summer. These committed individuals give swimmers peace of mind and encourage tourism at the shore. There are many cases where lifeguards come to the assistance of beach goers after hours when beaches are closed. I know; I was a lifeguard for several summers.
However, providing unemployment benefits to lifeguards, school crossing guards and beach staff employees who work for 12 weeks each summer is a practice that should end. These benefits are subsidized by the taxpayers in the communities in which these individuals work. Unemployment benefits should not be available to those who work at jobs that, by definition, only last a brief period each year.
Unfortunately, the state can no longer afford to pay these unemployment benefits, especially when more than 400,000 other people are currently unemployed in New Jersey. Our state’s unemployment insurance fund has been in a perilous condition for quite a few years.
In fact, in 2009 and 2010, New Jersey borrowed $1.6 billion from the Federal Unemployment Account to meet the state’s benefit obligation. Of course, “borrowed” means the loan must be paid back.
Providing unemployment insurance benefits to seasonal workers is now an untenable practice. There is no question in these occupations that the employment is for a finite period of time. Unlike the thousands of workers who are laid off with little hope of being recalled, seasonal workers know their employment timetable.
In January, the New Jersey Unemployment Task Force recommended that New Jersey law be amended to identify seasonal industries, determine industry seasons and eliminate all end-of-season separation eligibility. The task force also recommended that construction not be defined as a seasonal industry.
I incorporated these recommendations into bipartisan legislation (A-2454) introduced in February. It is not groundbreaking public policy, but necessary for New Jersey. As of yet, the bill is not scheduled to be heard in committee.
Before we know it, summer will be over. A group of seasonal employees will be entitled to collect this benefit once again, despite the fact that they will likely return to these jobs next year. This policy must come to an end.
Sean Kean is a New Jersey assemblyman.