Senate pushes to reopen some unemployment offices
DES MOINES – Working at the Newton Public Library, Sue Padilla wishes there was more she could do to help people with limited computer skills who try to access state services at a do-it-yourself computer in the library.
The Newton library is among roughly 1,000 spots throughout Iowa where people looking for work can file for unemployment, look for work or build resumes.
But Padilla, the library director, said at least half the people who come in don’t have the computer skills to attain the services they need.
“It’s like they’re being left out in the cold,” she said. “We’re willing to help as much as we can but we realize we’re not experts in the field.”
The Iowa Senate has approved an economic development budget that includes $2.7 million to reopen five unemployment offices in Ames, Atlantic, Dennison, Clinton and Newton. They were among 36 unemployment offices closed in 2011 when Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed funding amid an effort to shift to online services.
But even the Democrats behind the latest effort acknowledge that Branstad and Republicans who hold a majority in the House remain opposed to the idea.
For Rep. David Deyoe, R-Nevada, the Democrats’ effort is “pointless,” in part because even if lawmakers approved the funding, Branstad would veto it.
“I don’t think there’s a real big need to reopen offices we’ve already closed,” Deyoe said. “I think the virtual access centers aren’t getting the credit they deserve … I have not heard very many complaints at all recently about these sites.”
Branstad will review the final budget before making a decision, he still believes the computerized system “better accommodates job seekers,” spokesman Tim Albrecht said Friday.
Many in Newton don’t see it that way.
The city of 15,000 was the home to appliance maker Maytag, which at its peak employed 4,000 people. The company was sold in 2006 and manufacturing stopped the next year, and ever since many residents have struggled to find work.
Mayor Mike Hanson said he and other city officials think a staffed employment office could make a difference.
“We have discussions about it all the time … the frustration is that the City Council can’t do a doggone thing about it other than advocate restoration (of the office) to our legislators,” Hanson said.
Jane Repp, a retired unemployment counselor who lives in Newton, said online services can’t match the assistance she could offer clients.
“Computers are not good replacements for employment counselors,” she said. “People need to have very explicit instructions to file for unemployment and successfully draw it … but if they’re just working through a computer sometimes they get confused and don’t have anybody to answer a question.”
Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce disagreed, noting the computer network can reach far more people. She said the department also has added a new live-chat function so users can ask professionals questions during the workweek, even on Saturday
“We’ve handled more services on these than ever before in our offices. That’s because before there were 55 field offices but only in 53 counties … now every county has multiple sites,” she said.
Koonce said the unemployment offices were financed by a one-time federal appropriation that ran out by 2011, and shutting down the offices saved the department $6 million.
There are still 15 federally required, regional unemployment offices in Iowa and four state-sponsored satellite offices in Iowa City, Webster City, Fort Madison and Decorah.
The latest action by the Senate follows several years of disagreements between Democratic lawmakers and Branstad.
In 2011, a group of House and Senate Democrats joined with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to file a lawsuit against Branstad’s veto of funding for unemployment offices. In 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Branstad overstepped his authority when he used his veto to close the offices but kept the $3 million authorized to run them for other uses.
Although lawmakers approved a new budget for Workforce Development, the closed offices were not reopened.
“We won the court case but how do you back a train up once you’ve spent the money?” asked Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo.
Dotzler has been pushing hard to reopen the five offices, but he said the governor would likely put a stop to this year’s effort.
“But we need to continue to talk about this until it soaks in because we’re in a war for talent in Iowa and we need to connect Iowans with existing jobs,” he said.