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Public Services

What We Heard at the Budget Hearing for Atlanta’s New Department of Labor

Several council members expressed excitement for what the office could potentially do for underemployed residents.

Odie Donald II, chief of staff for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, discusses the city’s new department of labor during its first City Council budget briefing on Wednesday, June 11, 2023. (Stephen Dennis/Atlanta City Council)

Workforce development leaders from the office of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens are making final preparations to open the first city-run Department of Labor and Employment Services in July.

Last week, Odie Donald II, Mayor Andre Dickens’ chief of staff, laid out plans for the new department during its inaugural City Council budget briefing. Donald has a background in workforce development, having previously served as the state labor administrator and director at the Department of Employment Services in Washington D.C.

He told council members Atlanta’s new labor department is the mayor’s solution to the local economic challenges the administration saw on the campaign trail during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“‘A city for all,’ is the mayor’s pillar that this is truly focused on,” Donald said.

Georgia’s Black unemployment rate sank to a low of 5.4% during the last quarter of fiscal year 2022, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

But the median household income for Black families in Atlanta remains about $28,000, according to the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative. The median income for white households in the city is almost $84,000, the organization found.

Before the Atlanta City Council meets on June 20 to approve the budget, here’s what you need to know.

Finding Leadership

The mayor’s office is asking council members to approve a budget of $500,000 to cover salaries for the department, which is set to have an initial staff of just four people, not including some administrative positions.

Right now, the department’s priorities include recruiting executive staff. The mayor’s office said that the search for an executive director is still in process.

In December, Dickens appointed former union boss Humeta Embry to serve as the labor liaison officer. Embry previously served as executive director of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union.

Her new role tasks her with educating companies and employees about labor laws, requirements and the claim filing process, in addition to connecting skilled labor partners with Georgia’s eligible training provider list.

Jobs for the youth

The department of labor will also assume responsibility for the mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. More than 3,000 young adults secured career opportunities through the program last year, according to the mayor’s office.

Donald said AT&T, McDonald’s, Publix, Atlanta’s hospital system, the Atlanta Aquarium, and the YMCA recently partnered with the city to hire young people in conjunction with the mayor’s latest Summer Youth Employment Program “Signing Day.”

Roughly 750 young people signed up for the program at two separate engagement events. 

Workforce development

The department will be responsible for overseeing the city’s workforce development agency, WorkSource Atlanta. They will also be tasked with managing federal labor and workforce programs and initiatives at the city level.

Donald said the department is also developing customized programming for unemployed and underemployed Atlanta residents.

The U.S. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, signed into law back in 2014, provides programming aimed at helping Georgia job seekers find employment, education, training, and support services. But Georgia’s share of annual funding for the program has decreased by 30% over the last five years, according to the mayor’s office.

Donald said the labor department will work toward creating additional apprenticeship programs to complement the 639 currently sponsored through the Technical College System of Georgia. 

“We want to increase that number quite a bit by adding capacity,” he said.

What’s next?

The new labor department is set to officially open for business on July 1. Several council members expressed excitement for what it potentially can do for underemployed city residents.

District 5 Council member Liliana Bakhtiari suggested that the department pursue developing workforce housing for Atlanta employees. Union leaders have said rising rents have made living in the city impossible for many municipal workers.

Some city employees have been forced to sleep in their cars because they can’t afford rent. It’s one of the reasons city government leaders have struggled to fill many vacant positions in their departments.

“A lot of our folks are having to commute,” Bakhtiari said at the hearing. “I imagine we would start seeing much higher levels of retention if this was something we were able to explore.”

District 12 Council member Antonio Lewis said the new department will ensure city residents get cost-of-living adjustments, a phrase referring to pay raises that account for the rising cost of goods and services. Atlanta had one of the highest citywide rates of inflation in the nation this year.

“I’m extremely proud to see the work we’re doing,” Lewis said. “I can’t wait to see where this department goes.”

District 11 Council member Marci Collier Overstreet said she’s glad to see the city using its own tax dollars for much-needed services.

“This makes sure that we’re keeping everyone hired, trained, and compensated properly,” she said. “That’s how you build a really good, robust, thriving city.”