Labor commissioner taking stock and making changes, aiming for better experience for Georgians

Bruce Thompson Kia Day

Bruce Thompson stands between two Kia models at the Georgia State Capitol on Jan. 31, 2023, which Gov. Brian Kemp designated as "Kia Day," to recognize the automaker's relationship with the state. (Credit: Georgia Department of Labor)

Bruce Thompson Kia Day
Bruce Thompson stands between two Kia models at the Georgia State Capitol on Jan. 31, 2023, which Gov. Brian Kemp designated as "Kia Day," to recognize the automaker's relationship with the state. (Credit: Georgia Department of Labor)

When Bruce Thompson says he has an open-door policy, he means it. Literally.

The badge-only elevator access to his sixth-floor executive suite in downtown Atlanta is gone, removed shortly after his arrival in January as Georgia labor commissioner.

“We're treating it like any other floor now. The doors are wide open,” Thompson told State Affairs. “If we trust you anywhere in the Department of Labor, then why shouldn't you have access to us?” 

It’s a small step that speaks volumes in an agency beset for years with internal strife, financial mismanagement, claims backlog, and a reputation for an arms-length, talk-to-the-hand detachment with the state’s unemployed and those looking for work. The agency is operating in a state with a 3.1%  unemployment rate, a rapidly expanding job market [some 17,000 new jobs were added last month alone] and a rapidly changing work environment focused on providing services for tech-savvy millennials and Gen Zers.

The former military vet and Republican state senator took on the herculean task of rebuilding an agency that has far fewer employees and a shadow of the budget it once had. Two years ago, the agency had a $165 million budget. Today, it’s around $65 million, with much of the agency’s duties redirected to other agencies.

But just last week, state senators passed a bill that would essentially provide more money to the agency based on the reinstitution of a rule pertaining to how much new employers contribute to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

State Affairs spoke with Thompson about his turnaround plans. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Why did you want to become labor commissioner given all of the issues and challenges the department is facing?

A. The General Assembly basically asked me to run. There were hundreds of people on both sides of the [political] aisle who endorsed me and said go fix this. I already had a relationship with the executive branch. So I wasn't as concerned about that. But we needed to do more than just have a relationship. We had to show tangible change in how we do business. You're going to see some significant revenue redirected back to us.

Q. What are the top three internal issues or challenges you plan to address?

A. I have bought companies and turned them around. I've also started companies. The first thing you do is assess the people. If you don't have the right people in the right seats making the right decisions, you have a problem.

So as a leader of roughly 1,000 people who are empowered to affect over 11 million people, it's really important to make sure you have your culture right. I have been so pleasantly surprised by how they have responded to my leadership style. It frankly gets me emotional because I now see them laughing and working [past regular work hours]. There’s no overtime in this government. It's comp time. Many of them lose their comp time because they never use it. I don’t ask them to [work late]. They do it on their own because they now see the mission to serve. So culture is a big one. We’re still building it but it’s radically different already.

Number two is facilities. We discovered in Carrollton a $350,000 water damage. The conditions people were working in were beyond awful. So by us going around and inventorying the places people work has been significant because a lot of the culture and the attitude was well, nobody cares. And [they’re thinking] I'm siloed and this is the way it has to be. It doesn't have to be that way. So we're tangibly addressing our facilities.

The third thing is the customer experience has to be different. It's not just the culture of how we engage, but it is the technological approach to how we engage. We have to modernize how we're doing that. If you're static, you will be obsolete. You have to be dynamic, and we're now becoming dynamic.

That 30 and younger crowd grew up with iPhones, software and computers. So we've got to address their limited attention span quickly. Your older crowd in rural areas are not nearly as accustomed to using technology because they've been immersed in agriculture. We have to treat them differently.

in his first 60 days in office, thompson has...
  • Reversed a mass exodus. When Thompson arrived, over 100 employees were set to leave “because of the experience they had during the pandemic, as well as the [previous] leadership style,” he said, adding that now many have rescinded their resignations and retirements.
  • Made appearances in the field. He has visited six career centers and will have been to the remaining 35 by the end of his first 100 days in office. 
  • Set in motion efforts to update agency technology. He’s interviewed nearly 30 technology firms to find out “the most modern way to onboard and identify legitimate people and claims. So when someone needs help, how do we quickly identify that they're legitimately entitled, and then disperse the funds as quickly as possible?”

Q. How are the ongoing complaints of delays and people not getting unemployment benefits being addressed?

A. We're running six months behind on appeals. We applied and were given several million dollars in grants that we're waiting to receive to hire several hearing officers to get our claims caught up. Our goal is by August 1, we'd love to be 100% current on our appeals process.

Our new filings are pretty current. I'd like to speed that up but it's within the acceptable range.

Q. What's the status of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund? Is it solvent?

A. No. It hasn’t been solvent in years. It’s running right now at 53%. I think the last time I saw it, $1.2 billion was in there. It’s going to be really hard for it to become solvent until we modernize because all the fraud is depleting it. There’s very few states that are solvent right now because of what happened with COVID and the fraud. We’re all working with the feds to see if we can’t recover some of this money back into the trust funds.  In some states, their General Assembly is frankly putting money in there to get it back solvent.  The state we’re in right now, I’m not concerned about that. Obviously, it’s growing. We’re getting more and more money in because as your unemployment is low, you’re not paying out as much and while there’s growth in the business, those businesses are paying in [to the fund].

Q. Have you made any key staff changes?

A. Our chief information officer retired and we’ve changed facilities managers. We’ve got 41 career centers we own or manage that have been neglected over the years. Already, in our first two months, the new manager has inventoried the people and the assets so we can begin to deploy repairs and properly staff for the people so that their experience is not substandard. As we go back to what I said before, treat the people with respect and dignity so their experience is well.

  • Title: Georgia Department of Labor commissioner
  • Age: 58
  • Birthplace: California; raised on a farm near Big Sandy, Montana.
  • Residence: White, Georgia.
  • Education: Attended Montana State University on a wrestling scholarship. Graduated with a business administration degree from Reinhardt University in Waleska.
  • Career: Six years in the tank/armored division of the U.S. Army National Guard; founded and ran 18 companies since 1987; member of the Georgia Senate, 2013-2023; elected labor commissioner in November 2022, took office in January 2023.
  • Hobbies: Outdoor activities such as fishing and hunting; mentoring small-business owners.
  • Family: Wife, Becky; son Max, 17, and daughter Faith, 22.
  • What job would you want to be doing if you weren’t in this one: I’d be starting another company.

You can reach Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected]. Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for nearly 30 years.