9 Questions for Georgia’s Labor Commissioner Candidates

Richard Keatley (D)

Richard Keatley Georgia Labor Comissioner
Richard Keatley

Photograph courtesy of Richard Keatley Campaign

Democrat Richard Keatley spent time as a naval officer before going back to school for a PhD, becoming a professor at the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University.

1. Like most elected officials, labor commissioners can bring their own projects or initiatives to the job. What would you do that’s outside the formal job description?

As labor commissioner, I will collaborate with community, labor, and business leaders to make apprenticeship programs a standard for Georgia workers, particularly in rural areas. We have a skilled worker shortage, and these programs are a dynamic solution that can’t be ignored.

2. Most folks know the Department of Labor as the place you go to file for unemployment benefits. What’s the biggest difficulty or need for folks who are struggling to find work, and how do you remove that barrier?

One of the biggest issues I’ve heard about as I’ve traveled the state are issues around current or former drug dependency. We must work with the state legislature and state leaders to tackle that issue head-on.

3. In the coming years, what do you see as the biggest opportunities for Georgia workers? Where are the jobs going to be, and how do workers get ready for them?

I hear a lot of people talk about prospects around opportunities like Amazon and others, but since we can’t predict the future, shouldn’t we be focusing on making sure we have workers that can adapt to any economic environment? One idea is to work with our technical schools to broaden skills training in ways that are more adaptable for whatever comes our way down the line.

4. It’s hard to find farmworkers in Georgia, even in bad times, when unemployment is high. How can you help address this issue for the agriculture industry?

We definitely need to be pressing our members of Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, but [we should also] engage our industry leaders to focus in on the problems that might make these opportunities unavailable for good workers.

5. Some skilled jobs are hard to fill too—truck driver, welder, and so on. What can you do to help get unemployed Georgians into a place where they can fill those jobs?

We’ve really got to develop a better pathway for Georgians to participate in apprenticeship and training programs, and that starts with working with state Department of Education to better-promote those opportunities to students. I want every kid to know that they can go college if they want to, but that it’s not the only path forward.

6. Automation has the potential to kill millions of jobs, but also provide benefits. What does Georgia need to do to prepare for what could be a major shift in the types of jobs available to Georgians?

We’ve got to embrace these changes through education. Georgia must be preparing our workers for the future and adapt at the right time so our workforce can keep up.

7. Let’s talk about “misclassified” workers, when someone is treated as an employee but is classified by their employer as a “contractor.” The employer evades things like employment taxes and the worker misses out on benefits. What’s your approach to finding and ending employee misclassification? Is Georgia looking hard enough to find these violators?

We have not been looking hard enough. We’ve only done one impartial audit of Georgia companies in the past eight years, and we must be doing regular audits to weed out the violators. That the right thing to do for workers and for businesses; companies that obey the rules are put at a competitive disadvantage by those who don’t, and that’s just not fair.

8. Let’s take the other side, the gig economy, where folks get by not with a traditional career, but by piecing together jobs. A labor commissioner is supposed to help people find work and increase their self-sufficiency. How does this gig phenomenon make that harder—or, easier?

The gig economy offer some good opportunities for people who are looking for part-time employment. I’ve seen my students drive for rideshare companies to earn some extra money, and I think it’s very helpful to them. But this new economy increases need for us to think seriously about health insurance and pension benefits—if your income is increasingly coming from a job and not a career, will you be able to sustain yourself?

9. What are the biggest issues that the labor commissioner will need to face in the next four years?

The top issue is bridging the skills gap. We have a huge number of people who are working in unskilled jobs and not making enough to support their families, but plenty of skilled positions that don’t have enough workers to fill them. We also need to make sure we are developing career paths for workers and not just dangling short-term jobs in front of them. It’s not just about gaining employment; it’s about gaining stability.