I received a call from Senator Bruce Thompson today asking me if I would endorse his candidacy for Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL). In full disclosure, I did not hesitate in telling him yes, I fully endorse him.
This post is less about Senator Thompson’s announcement and more about why I was so quick to say yes.
One of the jobs of a State Representative is to serve their constituents whenever they need assistance navigating the bureaucracy of their own government. Sometimes these requests can be truly enlightening and the Rep learns something new about things like traffic light times, or medical benefits for retirees. But 2020 brought a bumper crop a new type of request: assistance getting information about the status of claims for unemployment assistance.
The pandemic, in the course of crushing our economy, also crushed the Georgia Department of Labor. It is a department that had been set up to run in times when unemployment was 4% or less, and we were seeing that number easily triple virtually overnight. Citizens would try calling the DOL only to never have their call answered. Messages were not returned. Emails never received an acknowledgement. Citizens desperate to make the rent payment or facing a repossession were left completely in the dark as to when or even if they would be getting help from a system they had paid into. Weeks passed and turned into months, and with no where left to turn, they often turned to their legislators.
At one point, I had over 30 open constituent cases that had gone longer than 90 days. New cases came in daily and each one was a story of a person who had reached their wits end, was being ignored, and had no where else to turn. Their desperation weighed on me. I didn’t sleep much as virtually every day brought a new story of how someone was losing everything. Not every case was difficult to resolve, some took mere minutes. But many dragged on endlessly.
And then the communication from the Department of Labor to my State House Office stopped. They went radio silent. Any request for updates were simply ignored. At one point, they told my staff to stop requesting updates on open cases. And this was the story I heard from dozens of my colleagues, none of us were getting responses anymore.
So I called the sitting Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor on his cell phone. This had actually happened on several occasions throughout 2020, but on one particular instance, I was left dumbfounded at the interaction.
A key point to interject here: I never actually argued whether any one of my constituents was entitled to receive benefits. That was a decision that needed to be made by the DOL. The role I played was making sure my constituents got information about the status of their claim in a timely manner so that they could plan accordingly. If they were not eligible, they deserved to know that as soon as possible, not months later. Okay, now back to the call with the incumbent Commissioner of Labor.
During the call the Commissioner expressed his frustration that I was constantly asking for updates. He expressed that my constituents weren’t telling me the whole story about their claims; that many of my constituents were not entitled to benefits for one reason or another. I told him that was fine, just tell me which ones were not eligible so I could get them updated as soon as possible. They were entitled to know. He then told me that in order for him to get me updates on, at the time, 23 or so open cases, he had to pull someone off of their normal day to day responsibilities to get updates and it took that person all day long. To get a simple status update on fewer than two dozen cases. He made it seem like I was asking for a resolution to their case when all I need was a status to report back to my constituent. When I clarified that request, he said it didn’t matter because their systems were not set up that way.
I am a business process guy. I have written and documented processes for small and large companies. I have introduced ticket tracking systems at three different companies. What the Commissioner was saying to me made absolutely no sense. Why would one person need to take a day away from their normal responsibilities to get updates on a handful of cases? When I asked this question, the Commissioner was incredulous. He felt like I was attacking him personally. He said he was one of the top three experts on unemployment in the country. I asked if that was so, why couldn’t the citizens of Georgia get simple update on their claim?
And then he blamed the legislature for not funding his department appropriately. This is a pile of cow patties. Departments are given the opportunity to lobby the legislature for their funding. I never once heard from the Commissioner or his office that they needed additional funding for any reason in my 8 years in the House.
The Commissioner offered to let me come and see why their work was so difficult and I instantly accepted his invitation. He stammered, I think, because he wasn’t expecting me to accept. He then said I would need to go get a COVID test before going into his office. I went that afternoon to get tested and a few days later when my results came back I called his office to arrange a time to come for a visit. You may be shocked by this, they ghosted me. But within 48 hours of this exchange, 17 of my open cases were resolved. So taking a cotton swab to the cranial cavity was worth it.
So I never got to see the process challenges the DOL has first hand. But when Senator Thompson called, these are the reasons I did not hesitate to offer him my support.
Senator Thompson is a CEO type who has a business process mindset. He is compassionate while balancing that with being a good steward of tax payer resources. He has employed people and knows how to lead successful organizations. And that’s why I am excited that Senator Bruce Thompson is running for Labor Commissioner.