ATLANTA — A coalition of labor leaders, unemployed workers and Democratic lawmakers pushed back this week against the decision by Gov. Brian Kemp to end Georgia's participation in the $300 a week federal unemployment supplement.
Sandra Williams, the executive director of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, characterized the move as a coercive one, forcing workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic and have subsisted through it on unemployment to take lower-wage jobs than they had before in order to keep getting by.
"The state of Georgia has a minimum wage of $5.15 (an hour), you also have a federal minimum wage of $7.35. People cannot raise a family, that is not a working, living wage," she said. "So you want women to leave their children at home. You want fathers to leave their children at home. And that's why I say 'coerced' - we haven't seen this type of treatment since the days of sharecropping, and slavery, because that's what it amounts to."
Gov. Kemp, in announcing the decision earlier this month, defended it as necessary for getting workers back on the job, arguing the federal supplement is "encouraging people not to get into the workforce."
He said small business owners are telling him they can't fill positions.
The coalition of activists and workers who held a press conference outside the state Department of Labor in Atlanta on Wednesday countered that those positions aren't being filled because they aren't paying competitive wages.
One worker who spoke said he knew of people who made $15-20 an hour before they lost their jobs in the pandemic, and he said the governor now "wants us to turn to small businesses and restaurants so we can make minimum wage or less than our previous salary, keeping us in a depressed state of mind so they can look good for the public."
He said the decision to end Georgia's participation in the federal supplement, will "cause numerous evictions, starvation, depression - in other words extreme hardship to Georgia families having a hard time finding suitable work because a lot of businesses are offering slave wages."
The governor has contended that, "We've got to get more people into the workforce, we wanna encourage people to do that, we have a lot of resources for them... we've got job training, we've got child care assistance for lower income families and we've got jobs available."
State Rep. Kim Schofield said Democrats would lay blame for workers' struggles at the feet of the governor.
"Governor Kemp, you are intentionally crushing families - especially Black, Brown, people of color, low wage, underskilled, underpaid workers and gig workers in the midst of a pandemic. By removing Georgia's unemployment safety net it further stresses Georgians who lost their jobs through no fault of their own," she said.
The federal $300 a week benefit will expire for all states in September unless Congress extends it.