May 23, 2015

Workers Memorial Day events around the state today

workers-memorial-ceremony-4The Iowa Senate paused today to honor Iowa workers who died on the job this past year. It was Senator Dick Dearden’s idea.

“We lost 39 people this year that went to work in the morning and never returned,” Dearden said. “…If we could have 39 seconds of silence in their memory — thank you.”

April 28 has been designated by the nation’s labor unions as “Workers Memorial Day” because that’s the day in 1971 that OSHA — the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — opened its doors.

Dick Dearden

Dick Dearden

“Countless lives have been saved over the years because of OSHA,” Dearden said. “It was bipartisan, a Democratic congress, a Republican president — President Nixon — who signed it.”

Dearden, a Democrat from Des Moines, was an active member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union during his career in the state court system. He’s been a member of the Iowa Senate since 1995 and a vocal supporter of the labor movement.

“Today we mourn for the dead and fight for the living,” Dearden said.

Labor unions have events planned at sites around the state. A ceremony was held at 11 o’clock on the state capitol grounds. There was an event at 12:30 on the pedestrian mall in downtown Iowa City. Workers Memorial Day events will be held in Cedar Rapids, Dubuque Sioux City and Waterloo this evening.

Mason City cement plant cited for violations of Mine Act

A federal agency has issued several citations against a Mason City cement company. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration on Monday announced they had issued 24 citations against Lehigh Cement Company for violations of the Mine Act.

Seven of those citations were for violations likely to cause serious injury or illness, while the other 17 violations were determined less likely to pose such a risk. The Mine Act prioritizes the health and safety of employees in coal or other mining industries.

Plant manager Tom O’Neill says in a written statement that the company is committed to workplace safety and their first priority is to immediately address and rectify all the issues raised during the inspection conducted in March.

(Reporting by Bob Fisher, KRIB, Mason City)


Governor Walker: a national ‘Right to Work’ law a ‘legitimate’ goal

Scott Walker talks with Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson.

Scott Walker talks with Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he has the “courage…and capacity” to take on powerful interests, including unions, at the federal level.

Walker, a Republican who is likely to enter the presidential race soon, signed a “right to work” law in Wisconsin this year and he sees a need for a similar federal law.

“As much as I think the federal government should get out of most of what it’s in right now, I think establishing fundamental freedoms for the American people is a legitimate thing and that would be something that would provide that opportunity in the other half of America to people who don’t have those opportunities today,” Walker said this morning during an interview with Radio Iowa.

Twenty five states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, have “right-to-work” laws that forbid organized labor from forcing non-union workers to pay union dues or fees in a workplace where employees have voted to unionize. Soon after he was elected governor in 2010, Walker gained attention and plaudits from Republicans and business interests across the country by pushing to make changes in tenure and benefits for teachers and public employees in Wisconsin.

“Really what we did wasn’t just fight unions. It was fight the stranglehold that big government special interests had on state and local governments,” Walker said today. “I think in Washington we need that even more.”

The federal government has “grown too much,” according to Walker, and, if elected president, he’d seek changes in the civil service system for federal employees.

“For example, we got rid of seniority and tenure. You can hire and fire based on merit. You can pay based on performance,” Walker said. “We found in our schools and our local and state governments you can put the best and the brightest in those positions.”

Walker and eight other potential competitors for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination will speak this evening to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. It’s an organization that represents evangelical Christians, an important voting block in the Iowa GOP. Walker, who is the son of a Baptist minister, said his faith impacts how he conducts himself and how he listens to others.

“My faith is not a litmus test. I don’t get a Ten Commandments handed down to me on a tablet, saying: ‘You should be this on this issue and that on that issue,'” Walker said. “…I’m a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I firmly that someone can be a fellow believer and have different views than I do on policy and I don’t think that makes them any less of a believer if they differ. I just think you get to it in different ways.”

Walker vaulted into the national spotlight in January after a well-received speech at Congressman Steve King’s “Iowa Freedom Summit” in Des Moines. When asked today about his choice to literally roll up his shirt sleeves for that and other key political appearances over the past four months, Walker — whose suit jacket was hanging on the back of the chair in which he was sitting during the Radio Iowa interview — laughed.

“I give a few speeches in a coat,” Walker said, then he offered up the reason why he often goes coatless: “You’ll get the simple truth out of me. It’s usually just because I’m hot.”

State unemployment rate drops to lowest level in nearly 7 years

Workforce-DevelopmentThe state unemployment rate continued its slow trend downward in March. “The Iowa unemployment rate dropped to 4-percent and that’s the lowest it has been since 2008,” according the Ed Wallace of Iowa Workforce Development. The March rate is down from the 4.1-percent in February, and its the sixth straight monthly drop.

Wallace says part of the drop in unemployment is driven by six straight months of increases in non-farm jobs. “Iowa added 3,300 jobs in the month of March alone,” Wallace says. “We see a lot of job growth in industrial construction in all four quadrants of the state.” The retail sector saw an increase of 1,800 jobs in preparation for increased summer traffic. Wallace says lower gas prices have given Iowans more money to spend on other items.

The were some job losses, with the leisure and hospitality sector losing 1,100 jobs — 900 of the losses coming in accommodations and food services. Manufacturing lost jobs for the first time since October, with small losses occurring in both durable and nondurable goods factories.

Overall though, Wallace says more Iowans are working this year compared to 2014. “Iowa’s unemployment is up 25,000 jobs over last year. The total number of Iowans employed is almost 1.7 million,” Wallace says. He says the state is getting close to a level where the percentage of people who want to find a job can find one.

“Iowa is getting closer to full employment, but there’s always opportunities for folks to look for them (jobs). “We’re continuing to work with folks who have the greatest barriers to employment,” Wallace says. The number of unemployed Iowans dropped to an estimated 67,800 in March compared to 70,300 in February.

Thousands expected to ask for extension to file federal taxes

IRS LogoFederal tax returns are due by midnight tonight and officials with the Internal Revenue Service expect more than 57,000 Iowans will be requesting an extension this year.

IRS spokesman Bill Brunson says you can go the antiquated route, using a paper form that needs to be postmarked before midnight, or speed up the process with a few clicks on the agency’s website.

Brunson says, “All you need to do is go to and click on the Free File icon where you can choose to request an extension automatically for an additional six months online at no charge.” You have until midnight to make the request, which will push your federal tax deadline back to October 15th. While it used to be a circus-like atmosphere on April 15th, with procrastinators rushing to the post office late at night, most of those offices now keep regular business hours on tax deadline day.

Brunson notes e-filing has all but eliminated that urgency and Iowa is one of the nation’s e-filing leaders.”The Internal Revenue Service expects more than 1.4-million returns for this reporting period and of that 1.4 million, 1.3-million are expected to be electronically filed,” Brunson says. “That’s a rate of 93 percent of Iowans who will choose to electronically file their tax return.”

E-filers also have until midnight to complete the tax task, which Brunson says is more accurate, since the program won’t let you make a math error. He touts another benefit.

“Your electronic return is secure in the sense that, if you have a refund coming, you can choose to have it directly deposited in your savings or checking account, and that item won’t get lost or stolen like an old-fashioned paper check,” Brunson says. “You can expect to get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service in 21 days or less.” E-filing saves the IRS a bundle. Processing a paper return costs $3.54 on average, while an e-filed return costs more like 18 cents.


AIB makes cuts in staff as enrollment drops

AIB-signThe AIB College of Business in Des Moines is cutting several positions as it moves toward shutting down. The school plans to close down its operations on June 30th of next year as the campus is given to the University of Iowa.

A transition update released by the school today says 17 of the approximately 80 full-time AIB staff members were notified Monday that their positions will be eliminated on June 8th of this year.

The update says the staff are being cut based on projections of lower enrollment, and it is anticipated that more jobs will be cut later this year.

The school says it will keep a core staff until the closing next year, and faculty members who are remaining on staff have been given contracts outlining their employment agreements. It also says AIB will partner with Iowa Workforce Development to provide support to those employees who are losing their jobs.


Branstad rejecting Department of Labor advice about chief judge

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is resisting the U.S. Department of Labor’s advisory about the job classification as well as the qualifications for a key state government employee.

“I think the responsibilities of that position have changed,” Branstad told reporters Monday.

According to the Labor Department, the chief in charge of Iowa administrative law judges who rule on disputed unemployment claims should be a merit employee, meaning someone hired based on their qualifications and who has the right to appeal his or her firing. Branstad has made the chief an “at will” political appointment, so the chief judge can hired and fired for any reason. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo who asked for the Labor Department review, said making it a political appointment doesn’t make sense.

“The only reason I can see why you would fight so hard to have political appointees there — you’re really trying to influence this stuff,” Dotzler said.

Branstad said the chief no longer decides cases, but merely oversees the judges who do and makes case assignments.

“So it’s more an administrative position today,” Branstad said. “They’re not making decisions based on contested cases.”

But Senator Dotzler said the chief can certainly “boss” the judges to rule a certain way.

“That’s political influence,” Dotzler said. “…I would think that the governor would want to be one step removed from that so he doesn’t get accused of this being bought.”

The agency director who resigned abruptly in early January told The Des Moines Register she tried to heed the U.S. Department of Labor’s directive to change the chief administrative law judge to a merit employee, but was overruled by Branstad’s top aides. Branstad told reporters on Monday he doesn’t “micromanage” and won’t discuss this personnel decision.