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Why The Race for Georgia Labor Commissioner is So Crucial for Black Voters

Candidate William Boddie Jr. explains his plan to boost employment opportunities throughout the state.

Georgia state Rep. William Boddie Jr., the Democratic nominee for labor commissioner, says he wants to increase public trust in the agency. (Boddie for Labor Commissioner)

William Boddie Jr. says the Georgia Department of Labor has done a poor job serving Black residents in recent years. The Democratic state representative says he has plans to change that after November’s midterm election, with the help of Georgia voters.

Boddie, a 45-year-old Atlanta native who lives in East Point, is running against Republican state Sen. Bruce Thompson to become Georgia’s next labor commissioner after winning a primary runoff race last month.

Boddie is a Mercer University Law School graduate and former public defender who has continued his own criminal defense and personal injury law practice while serving in the state House.

He’s been endorsed by Stacey Abrams along with more than 200 fellow elected leaders throughout the state and says he has a better track record of advocating on behalf of working families than Thompson. 

Whoever wins their general election matchup will replace Republican Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, who in February announced plans to retire from the position he’s held since 2011.

The DOL is the office responsible for managing a number of critical employment-related services at the state level, including processing unemployment checks, maintaining workforce statistics, and providing career training to help state residents secure better-paying jobs.

Employment and wage disparities between Black and white residents have been a major problem in Atlanta and throughout the state, especially during the pandemic.

Boddie was one of the General Assembly members who had a front-row seat as to how poorly the department dealt with unemployment benefits in 2020 after COVID-19 began spreading across the state.

Pandemic-related business closures resulted in millions of Georgians getting furloughed or laid off through no fault of their own. Many filed for unemployment benefits and were denied in their time of greatest need.

“I was getting a lot of calls from constituents and citizens across the state of Georgia that could not get any communications responding from the Georgia Department of Labor,” Boddie said about his time stepping in to answer questions that should have been addressed by the DOL. “The Department of Labor shuttered its doors during that time. Emails were not being responded to. Phone calls were not being answered. It was a situation where me and other state legislators on both sides of the aisle in both the House and the Senate became de facto employees of the Department of Labor.”

A Bloomberg investigation revealed in November that Black Georgians were applying for and being denied unemployment insurance claims at a higher rate than white residents.

The report revealed at least 2.25 million unemployment claims were filed in Georgia over the course of the year following March 1, 2020. Black folks made up over a third of Georgia’s labor force at the time, but represented 53% of workers denied unemployment during the same span.

“The state of Georgia has less African-American workers than Caucasian workers, but African-American workers were denied unemployment benefits at a higher rate,” Boddie said. 

The DOL hasn’t been the same since 2010, according to Boddie. That was the year Butler replaced Michael Thurmond, the state’s first Black labor commissioner, and the last Democrat to hold the position.

Boddie said he and other Democrats have watched the DOL deteriorate under more than a decade of Republican control. He said the DOL went from having more than 4,000 employees when Thurmond left office to having about 1,100 employees today. The DOL’s website says it employs a staff of approximately 2,000 people.

The department previously had 83 career centers spread across the state, according to Boddie. Today it has at least 41, according to the DOL’s website.

Many Black Georgians, according to Boddie, are forced to work more than one job to ensure they have enough to pay their living expenses. If elected, he said he would work to make sure that’s no longer the case.

“​​They can have one job, a quality of life, a livable wage, be able to pay for health care and be able to provide for their families,” Boddie said. “They won’t have to worry about living check to check.”

To that end, Boddie said he would advocate for Medicaid expansion. This would bring billions of dollars in federal funding into the state, motivating health care providers to open more offices and create 64,000 jobs statewide, including in rural areas where many Black residents live and struggle to find quality employment and sufficient local health care services.

He also would mandate implicit racial bias training for DOL employees to ensure what has happened to Black unemployment applicants during the pandemic doesn’t happen again.

Boddie plans to upgrade the DOL’s website, which is antiquated and not very user-friendly, he says. He wants upgrades to ensure the site can process unemployment claims faster and help distribute payments more efficiently.

“I want to have a more user-friendly website that is interactive first and foremost, add chat features and an online portal for small-business owners to be able to connect with job seekers, where they can meet the needs of that particular business owner and the employee pool that’s out there,” he said.

He also wants the office to partner with Georgia’s HBCUs to create onsite training facilities and services for hospitality industry workers, so they can work their way up the career ladder. Boddie also is in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $15 an hour.

“Even before I was in the Georgia General Assembly, I was fighting for working families as a lawyer,” Boddie said. “This Department of Labor has lost the trust of the citizens of the state, and I look to bring that back.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Boddie hopes to create 64,000 jobs statewide, not just in rural areas.