State labor department spends millions to rent career centers closed to public

By: - July 23, 2021 1:00 am

Klaire Gumbs, an organizer with the New Georgia Project, marches to the Georgia Department of Labor headquarters in Atlanta. Ross Williams

The Georgia Department of Labor is paying more than $6.6 million a year for 21 career centers that have been closed to the public since March 2020, according to leases maintained by the State Properties Commission.

In pre-pandemic times, the centers offered services like resume fine-tuning and job hunt help, but the department closed the doors of the brick-and-mortar havens for displaced workers last March as the pandemic began to reach across the state. 

More than a year later, as businesses are inviting customers back indoors and expanded federal help for out-of-work Georgians has ended, those in-person career services are still not available, and some are demanding to know why.

“Everything else is opened up, except for the Department of Labor career center offices, as they’re driving people back to work by reinstating work search requirements for the meager unemployment benefits that are still available to workers,” said Ryan Richardson, program coordinator for the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council. “People want to be working. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the jobs and the support network is not there. We’re still living in a pandemic moment, and if they were really serious about it, they would be opening up the career centers.”

These 21 Georgia Department of Labor career centers cost taxpayers more than $6 million per year but are currently closed to the public. Map created via ArcGIS Online map hosted by Esri

Richardson was one of several dozen people who marched to the state labor department headquarters in downtown Atlanta Wednesday for a demonstration. The protesters said they want the labor offices to reinstate the federal benefits, clear up backlogs, provide prompt service and reopen career centers.

When they arrived, Richardson led a chant of “open the doors, open the doors!”

The Georgia Department of Labor website lists 41 career centers across the state, some of which are owned by the department, including the Atlanta center. At least 21 are leased, to the tune of millions per year, according to documentation the Georgia Recorder obtained through a records request. 

The buildings are owned by entities ranging from local development authorities to city officials and real estate investors. Some locations are storefronts in shopping centers. 

The Norcross facility is in a plaza alongside other government facilities like the state Department of Driver Services and the Gwinnett County Department of Family and Children Services. The parking lot in front of that building was empty Wednesday morning with a sign on the door dated March 16, 2020, saying the facility is temporarily closed.

The Georgia Department of Labor Career Center in Norcross appeared abandoned late Wednesday morning. The state pays more than $800,000 per year to rent about 37,000 square feet of space in a shopping center. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

That 37,000-square foot career center costs taxpayers more than $800,000 per year, according to the State Properties Commission records.

The entrance to the Cobb County center across the street from Kennesaw State University’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium is roped off with signs reading “no trespassing.” A security guard stationed in the parking lot advised would-be visitors Thursday that the lot was closed to the public.

Two centers in Athens and College Park cost taxpayers more than $1 million per year each, according to the State Properties Commission records. The labor department disputes the College Park lease rate provided by the commission that manages the state’s rental property, saying the price to rent that space is closer to $223,000. 

A list of leased career centers and the cost to the state can be viewed here.

‘We haven’t had a day off’

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler objected to the suggestion that keeping the doors closed to the public is a waste of taxpayer money because employees still work from there answering phones and handling claims.

“We utilize those centers fully, with our employees working, helping Georgians seven days a week,” he said. “We haven’t had a day off, and we haven’t basically been closed since this began. We have been working constantly. None of my folks went home when the pandemic started. Nobody has worked harder in the state of Georgia than the men and women of the Georgia Department of Labor for the last 16 months.”

All of his staff members who worked in reemployment at the centers have been temporarily reassigned to help handle the influx of claims since the pandemic began in March 2020, he said.

Butler expressed frustration that some believe they could solve problems with their claims if the centers were open, when in reality, the centers were used exclusively for things like reemployment training before the pandemic. Other services like eligibility reviews and appeals have been done over the phone for years, he said.

“They think that they can show up at the career center, they’ve been told by their state (representative), or their state senator in some cases, ‘If you could just get in here, you could get your case heard,’ and that’s not true,” Butler said.

A no trespassing sign hangs in front of the Georgia Department of Labor career center in Kennesaw. Leasing the building costs taxpayers more than $667,000 per year. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Security is another concern, Butler said. The pandemic jobless crisis has caused some to experience long delays. Others disagree with their rejections. Some of these people have responded with threats, which have been investigated by the police, Butler said.

“We’ve had our employees followed to their cars, pictures taken of them. People have sent them emails showing pictures of them with their grandkids and saying, ‘I know where you live,’” Butler said. “And so we’re taking this kind of thing very seriously.”

The labor department has plans to reopen all of the career centers. Butler declined to provide a timeline or any further information, citing security concerns.

Department spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright said resuming career center operations will be a gradual process.

“We won’t open all of them at one time. It’s going to be a soft opening. It’ll probably be an appointment-based system when we do reopen for people to come in and get support with reemployment and to utilize the internet and whatever else they might require at the center,” she said.

Labor Department employees with other duties have been switched to helping handle claims, but with unprecedented levels of layoffs at the height of the pandemic, displaced workers across Georgia have reported endless rings on the other line when they call for assistance.

A duty and responsibility

Others are finding the only jobs available in their communities are in different fields than they worked in before and offer lower pay.  Workers who previously labored in low-pay, high-stress fields like food service are more interested than ever in starting new careers, making the services the career centers used to provide more needed than ever, said Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council Executive Director Sandra Williams. 

“The duty and responsibility of career centers is to work directly with workers that are seeking training, seeking opportunity, seeking answers to questions,” she said. “Without those doors being open and constantly getting recordings and not getting callbacks, workers are at their wit’s end. It is frustrating. You want me to go back, but you want me to go back for less.”

Those who want that kind of assistance should instead reach out to WorkSource Georgia, a service of the Technical College System of Georgia, Butler said.

“That’s not handled in Georgia Department of Labor and hasn’t been for six years,” Butler said. “That is WorkSource, Georgia, so you need to contact one of those offices and see if they’re open. That’s where somebody can get (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) money, training money, to where they have their training paid for. That’s handled by the Technical College System of Georgia. They moved that out from the Department of Labor back in the Nathan Deal administration.”

WorkSource Georgia offers services ranging from resume help to classroom lessons to on-the job instruction. 

But a few years ago there was a push to consolidate workforce development resources, said Kristin Laarhoven, executive director of workforce development at the Technical College System of Georgia, and many of their offices are located inside Department of Labor buildings.

“The majority of the offices, we are co-located with the Georgia Department of Labor, and so most of our offices that were not co-located are open, but we are still closed at the centers where we’re tenanted with the Department of Labor,” she said.

“For better or worse, we’ve had to up our web presence in the civil service, well in the future and offering more options to people, but I don’t think necessarily one is better than the other, it just goes to needing to meet customers where they are,” she added. 

And WorkSource Georgia’s offices have not seen a major spike in demand since Georgia’s economy began to reopen, Laarhoven said.

“Frankly, we just haven’t seen that rush to receive services,” she said. “I’m curious, just a contributing factor of what it’s going to look like a couple of months from now, now that Georgia is no longer participating in the increased unemployment insurance benefits. I can see that kind of having an effect on people wanting to potentially come in to get training after that.”

Enrollment could also increase in a month or two as people become more comfortable going out in public and parents with children home for the summer will no longer have to find someone to mind the kids while they seek job training, she added.

Let them eat cake

Wednesday’s demonstration was timed to coincide with Butler’s birthday. Richardson carried a sheet cake festooned with gummy worms and “GA Chamber of Commerce forced 347,000 workers to eat cake” in icing, a reference to the deposed French queen Marie Antoinette.

Demonstrators wished Labor Commissioner Mark Butler a not-so-happy birthday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s job numbers are improving, but the past year has presented challenges for Butler. Last month, Georgians who have had trouble receiving benefits sued him alleging the state broke the law in its delays returning claims.

Fellow Republican Bruce Thomas, a state senator from White, is challenging Butler in next year’s election and is so far winning the money race.

Three Democrats also have their eyes on Butler’s title: East Point state Rep. William Boddie, state Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah and Nicole Horn, an Atlanta businesswoman and consultant.

Horn, a regular figure at recent protests at the department’s Atlanta headquarters, railed against the delay in reopening the career centers at Wednesday’s rally.

“Career centers are supposed to be open so that we can find jobs that align with people’s skills so that we can find jobs that pay for rent, pay for child care, pay for food,” she said. “I’ve talked to Georgians across our state, and I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories. I’ve talked to people who said, ‘Yeah, I am back at work. I’m working at a job that I’m making less at, and I’m being evicted from my home because I didn’t get my unemployment benefits on time.’ This matters. Mark Butler, where are you?”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.