Mark Butler, Georgia’s state labor commissioner, had one job during the coronavirus pandemic: issue unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in a timely fashion. He’s failed miserably.
Not only has Butler’s office summarily rejected the vast majority of UI claims filed during COVID-19 — denying claimants much-needed relief, including an extra $600 a week under the federal CARES Act — it has failed to pay out benefits to tens of thousands of Georgians whose claims have already been approved.
Butler’s callous neglect has left an already impoverished state on the brink of disaster. The CARES Act eviction moratorium ended July 24, and many Georgians — some of them still awaiting their UI checks — are now being forcibly removed from their homes. Amid a devastating pandemic, the state is turning poor and working-class people out on the street, creating a ticking time bomb of super-spreader proportions.
Butler personifies the depravities of state-level Republicans. He’s benefited mightily from the voter suppression that the GOP has deployed to great effect in Georgia and elsewhere in recent years. Butler assumed office in 2011, the same year Brian Kemp, now the governor, was elected secretary of state.
Kemp spent his eight years in office purging nearly a million and a half people from Georgia’s voting rolls and directing the closure or relocation of almost half the state’s polling sites. Using racist and xenophobic ads, and various means of voter suppression, Kemp narrowly won the governor’s race in 2018. Butler won reelection the same year. (Georgia is one of four states that elects its labor commissioner.)
Together, the two men have completely botched the handling of Georgia’s COVID-19 crisis. Kemp made headlines in late April when he announced that Georgia would be one of the first states tore-open during the pandemic. Georgia still lacks a mask mandate. By mid-August, the national coronavirus task force was warning of the state’s continued “widespread and expanding community viral spread,” chastising Kemp’s policies as not “enough to curtail COVID-19.” Like several other Deep South states, Georgia still lacks a mask mandate.
As Georgians continue to reel from the pandemic itself, Butler has compounded their hardships by denying UI benefits outright to more than 55 percent of people who have applied. In a mathematically unintelligible press release on August 6, Butler’s office says it deemed 1.49 million out of 3.39 million UI claims “valid” for further eligibility investigation.
Unemployed workers that have managed to secure benefits report never having received a check, or seeing their payments suddenly halted after a few weeks. When they attempt to contact the Department of Labor, whether via email or phone, they receive no response.
Butler blames the problems on the increased caseload. But legally, he has the authority to hire as many people as the department needs to deal with the backlog of claims. He has declined to do so.
The failures of Georgia’s administration mean that workers in one of the poorest, most inequitable states — many of whom were already living in financial precarity — will fall deeper into poverty in the coming months. Even before the ravages of COVID, Georgia ranked thirty-ninth in both general poverty and childhood privation, with over a fifth of the state’s children living in deprivation. It ranked thirty-ninth in income inequality, forty-first in high school graduation rates, and dead last in health insurance coverage, with nearly 14 percent – 1.4 million people — uninsured. Under Governor Kemp’s direction, Georgia refused to expand Medicaid, leaving $45.4 billion of federal money on the table over ten years.
And due to the ravages of history — from slavery and the failures of Reconstruction to the modern-day policing crisis — poverty is nowhere close to an equally shouldered burden. The sins of Kemp and Butler will hit black workers the hardest.
Perhaps the only upside to all of this: Commissioner Butler can be voted out of office in two more years, along with Governor Kemp.
Mere weeks before his 1968 murder, as he attempted to form a radical, multiracial coalition of poor people, Martin Luther King Jr wrote that America must “fashion a confrontation unique in drama but firm in discipline to wrest from government fundamental measures to end the long agony of the hard core poor.” He concluded: “A prosperous society can afford it; a moral society cannot afford to do without it.”
Unless poor and working-class Georgians unite across racial lines, the state’s reactionary ruling class will continue to suppress the vote and deprive its residents of economic and social rights. But Georgia has risen out of the ashes of ruin, despair, and poverty many times before. The people now have a reason to rise again.