MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Labor Commissioner Tom Surtees is stepping down after a decade of leading major state agencies for two governors.
Serving in key positions in two administrations is rare in a capital city where department heads normally change with each governor. Surveying the photos of his predecessors at the Department of Labor, Surtees said, “No one ever stayed over from one administration to the next. I consider it a compliment or they couldn’t find anybody else.”
Surtees was vice president of human resources at the Birmingham-based Citation Corp. when Republican Gov. Bob Riley asked him to take over the state Revenue Department in March 2004, the month he turned 54. Surtees said he didn’t know Riley, but a mutual friend recommended him for the job.
Surtees had been a Pleasant Grove City Council member for one term and a Jefferson County school board member for one term, but had never had a full-time government job.
“I fell in love with state government because what we do here makes a difference,” he said.
As revenue commissioner, he oversaw Alabama raise the threshold at which low-income families were required to pay state income tax. Until then, Alabama required families living below the federal poverty line to pay more state income tax than any other state.
In 2007, Riley moved Surtees to the state Department of Industrial Relations, which handles unemployment compensation claims and runs job centers that help unemployed people find work.
When Gov. Robert Bentley took office in January 2011, he retained Surtees and gave him additional duties in late 2012 when the state departments of Labor and Industrial Relations were merged, with the resulting agency called the Department of Labor.
Along the way, Surtees has temporarily added extra duties whenever Bentley had a key vacancy, including handling legislative relations and serving as education liaison.
“I refer to myself as a utility infielder. I don’t get put into the game unless someone gets hurt,” Surtees said.
Bentley said Tuesday that Surtees has been a valuable member of his Cabinet who will be missed. “With each new position, Tom accepted the role with enthusiasm and humility,” the governor said Tuesday.
Surtees said nothing in his career has been as fulfilling as helping people to get unemployment benefits and find work during the recession.
During the worst week of the recession, his agency paid $29 million in unemployment benefits to 115,000 Alabamians. Now it’s down to about $5 million a week for 21,000.
He recounts talking to people who didn’t know what to do because they had never been unemployed before. The calls always had the same desperate theme.
“They’d say, ‘I’ve worked here all my life. What do I do?’” Surtees said, adding that he would reply, “‘Well, we can help you.’”