March 29, 2015

State unemployment rate drops again in February

Workforce-Development-signThe state’s unemployment rate continues on its downward trend with February dropping down to 4.1-percent from January’s rate of 4.2-percent.

Iowa Workforce Development spokesperson, Kerry Koonce, says it’s the fifth straight month with a drop. “We continue to see drops in the number of people who are unemployed. We are down 4,000 from a year ago for the number of people who are unemployed,” Koonce says. “And our number of people who are actually receiving unemployment insurance is down almost 12,000 from last month as well.”

The number of unemployed dropped, even though the state lost some jobs in the month, the first decline in jobs since September. “We dropped 400 jobs, which isn’t very big. Most of that being in the trade, transportation and utilities area. We saw a larger growth in that last month than really was expects, so I think that was just some leveling out,” according to Koonce.

Several areas did add jobs. “We saw nice growth in manufacturing, nice growth in education and health services — so those really helped the state as well,” Koonce says. Workforce Development figures show manufacturing added 1,200 jobs, the education and health care areas increased jobs fueled entirely by gains in private education of one-thousand jobs.

The number of unemployed Iowans dropped to 70,100 in February from 71,800 in January. Koonce says warmer weather should lead to more job gains. “Because you will have a lot of those people who are on temporary unemployment coming back to work. And we saw some gains in construction this month, the biggest gains are coming in industrial, which is good, because that shows overall growth,” Koonce says.

The national unemployment rate was 5.5-percent in February.


Iowa Air National Guard opens first recruiting office outside of base

New Iowa Air National Guard recruiting office.

New Iowa Air National Guard recruiting office.

The Iowa Air National Guard opened its first storefront recruiting office today in West Des Moines. Guard leader Adjutant General Timothy Orr  says it’s a new method of recruiting for the Air Guard.

“Sometimes when you are out on a base and because of the procedures for security and that , it’s kind of intimidating to say I am going to drive onto a base to check out recruiting,” Orr says. “So, what we’ve done is kind of made it an approach where you can go out into your community like you’re shopping for clothes, you’re shopping for a career. Here’s an opportunity for you to shop for a military career.”

Colonel Kevin Heer and General Tim Orr cut the ribbon for the new recruiting office.

Colonel Kevin Heer and General Tim Orr (center L-R) cut the ribbon for the new recruiting office.

Orr says recruiting it a vital part of the Iowa National Guard. “Well, it’s the key to our readiness, and we like to maintain what we call 100 strength in our Army and Air National Guard. And as we’ve deployed over the last 13 years we’ve maintained about a little over 100 percent strength, and it’s important that we continue to do that. Our nation requires us to that, because we never know what the missions are going to be,” Orr says. “And then our state missions — which is our other responsibility for the governor — we have be ready. And we like to says it starts with our personnel.”

Orr says their recruiting process begins with looking for men and women who are willing to serve. “And that varies anywhere from the ages of 17, all the way up to about 34. We get a lot of prior service active-duty personnel who decided they want to come back to Iowa, and it’s tied very closely to the Home Base Iowa program that governor Branstad proposed,” Orr says. He says soldiers can serve between six and 10 year son active duty and they decide they want to come back and serve their community in guard and reserve.

A model of the MQ-9 Reaper hangs from the ceiling of the recruiting office.

A model of the MQ-9 Reaper hangs from the ceiling of the recruiting office.

The Iowa Air Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing transitioned into what is now called the 132nd Wing, which now flies unmanned drones instead of manned jet fighters long with two other missions. “I was the first one who fought very hard along with the governor to keep the F-16’s, but when we lost those, we worked very hard to get the next set of missions, which is the MQ-9 Reaper mission, the intelligence targeting mission and the cyber mission,” Orr explains. “All three are enduring future missions that the world and the nation needs in order to provide security and to be able to take the Air Force to its next level.”

Orr says the change in missions allows Iowa Air National Guard to stay at the forefront of the military. “These are missions where other states are going to be struggling with older aircraft and figuring out what are they going to get. We’re moving out with I think some of the top most advanced technology aspects of the Air Force that you can find,” Orr says.

Colonel Kevin Heer is commander of the 132nd, and is excited about the new recruiting office. “This is an amazing new chapter, we’ve always done recruiting on base, and just the limitations of getting people who aren’t in the military into our recruiting facility has always limited our ability to reach out,” Heer says. “This really gets us out in the community in a way to engage with those citizens who are going to become citizen airmen.”

The new Recruiting Operations Center (ROC) is located at 7205 Vista Drive, West Des Moines.


House GOP votes for changes in Iowa school districts’ contract negotiations

 Greg Forristall

Greg Forristall

Republicans in the Iowa House have passed a bill that would change the collective bargaining process for teachers and other school employees.

Under current law when there’s a stalemate in negotiations, an arbitrator is called in and must choose the final offer from either labor or from management. The bill would allow an arbitrator to reject both sides and choose some middle ground. Representative Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macedonia, said giving an arbitrator more freedom makes sense.

“It simply means that the award can be within the scope of reality,” Forristall said to close the debate, “so if the employer is offering one percent and the union is demanding nine percent, the arbitrator can choose something that is real.”

Republicans argued the current system stacks the deck against taxpayers and there should be no expectation that teachers get a raise every year. Union groups are staunchly opposed to the bill and it is unlikely to even be considered in the Democratically-led Iowa Senate.

“This bill is a continuation of the Republican attack on our children and their education,” Smith said near the end of debate on the legislation. “It’s a smoke-screen for the real issue.”

That real issue, Smith and other Democrats said, is a reluctance among Republicans to forward more state support to Iowa’s public schools. Legislators are still squabbling over how much state aid will be spent in the school year that begins this fall, plus they have failed to resolve the dilemma over the actual date when school may start in August.

The debate in the House on teacher contract negotiations lasted more than nine hours and stretched over two days, concluding just after noon today.

State unemployment drops 4th straight month

Workforce-DevIowa’s unemployment rate in January dropped to 4.2 percent, down from 4.3 percent in December and 4.4 percent one year ago.

Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) spokesperson Kerry Koonce says January marked the fourth consecutive month the state added jobs.

“We added 3,100 jobs in January, so we’re over 1,562,000 jobs for the state,” Koonce says. The U.S. unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in January. Koonce says several industries in Iowa are at or near all-time highs in employment.

“We are up, over this time last year, almost 25,000 jobs…we’ve seen gains in sectors across the state, so that speaks very good for Iowa’s diversified economy,” Koonce says. The trade and transportation sector added 2,200 jobs in January, according to the IWD report. Professional and business services added 1,800 jobs. Around 900 construction jobs were eliminated across the state in January, but Koonce says that industry is still booming in Iowa.

“If you look at January of 2015 compared to January 2014, we’re up 6,500 jobs in construction,” Koonce says. Iowa’s construction sector is coming off an all-time high of 77,500 jobs reached in December.


Senator predicts confirmation for new director of state agency in turmoil

Bill Dotzler

Bill Dotzler

A newly-revealed letter from federal investigators concludes state employees who ruled on contested unemployment cases have felt pressured to rule for businesses rather than the workers.

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, had asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the state’s Workforce Development agency a year ago and this morning Dotzler said he felt vindicated.

“Actually they found basically everything that I said to be true,” Dotzler said this morning. “…Let’s hope this chapter is behind us.”

Teresa Wahlert abruptly retired from her job as director of the agency in January after spending months defending her management of the agency and the move to make administrative law judges in the department “at will” employees who could be easily fired. Federal officials say the agency should return those those judges to “merit” employee status, hired for their experience rather than political connections.

Wahlert told The Des Moines Register last night that she had tried late last year to make the change, but was overruled by the governor’s top advisors. Dotzler predicts the woman who’s now in charge of the agency will easily win senate confirmation.

“I feel confident that the new director is taking steps in an appropriate way to make Iowa Workforce Development have more access to Iowans,” Dotzler said this morning, “and to make sure that its mission of taking care of Iowans when they’re unemployed or want to upgrade their skills or to find work in a better environment have a fair opportunity.”

Workforce Development director Beth Townsend was appointed to the post in January. Townsend told senators she’s been meeting with workers in the department to discuss ways to improve both employee morale and the agency’s operations, but is waiting until senators confirm her for the job until making many changes.

Ruling means union state employees will pay some toward health insurance

Danny Homan (file photo)

Danny Homan (file photo)

About 19,000 state government employees who are covered by the AFSCME union contract will, for the first time, start paying a small share of their monthly health insurance premiums. An independent arbitrator was brought in when labor and management could not reach an agreement after three months of negotiating. The arbitrator issued a split ruling this weekend.

The employees covered by the AFSCME contract will start paying about $20 a month for their health insurance premiums. That was AFSCME’s final offer on the benefit side of the equation.

Governor Branstad’s administration had been pressing for far more — like up to 15 percent of premium costs next year. Branstad’s spokesman expressed disappointment in the decision, saying most Iowans pay far more than $20 a month for health care coverage.

AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan called the arbitrator’s decision “fair” and “reasonable.” He noted the arbitrator had sided with Branstad’s negotiators on wages.

The nearly 19,000 employees in the state executive branch and the judicial branch who are covered by the AFSCME contract will receive a 2.5-percent pay increase on July 1st. There will be a pay boost of slightly less the following year and a final pay increase of 1.25-percent on January 1st of 2017.


Des Moines Post Office faces thousands in fines for safety violations

Post-Office-box-003A post office in central Iowa is facing a sizeable fine for alleged safety violations, according to Scott Allen, spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

“OSHA did issue citations to the Des Moines Main Post Office for one repeat and two serious safety violations involving standards for power industrial vehicles and forklifts,” Allen says. “They were fined $49,500.”

Allen explains why they investigated the facility. “This inspection was actually prompted by an employee complaint stating that power industrial vehicles were being operated with broken safety devices, creating unsafe conditions for the operators and other workers in the area,” Allen says. The Postal Service has a responsibility to make sure equipment is maintained in good working order, Allen says, as hundreds of workers nationwide are hurt every year when they’re hit by forklifts.

There were no injuries reported at the Des Moines facility. “The investigation found at least one of the forklifts and two tugs were operating with installed flashing lights that basically were not operating properly,” Allen says. “That’s causing a safety hazard for everyone in the area.” The fines have just been issued and the Postal Service has 15 days to contest the fine or request a hearing, though Allen says it’s not just about the money.

“The most important thing is to insure the workers in the area of these forklifts are safe,” Allen says. “They need to correct the issues and move forward from there.” OSHA cited the same postal facility for the non-functioning lights violation in 2010. OSHA issues repeat violations when an employer has been previously cited for the same or a similar violation in the past five years. The two serious violations were cited for failing to make repairs on a forklift and to remove it from service until it was fully functioning.