September 30, 2014

Workforce Development given money to upgrade unemployment payment system

The federal government is giving Iowa Workforce Development nearly two million dollars to upgrade the system used to track unemployment. IWD spokesperson, Kerry Koonce, says they will be upgrading the technology of the system.

“Overall the intentions are to be able to make it so claims can be processed faster — that lets individuals get paid quicker — but yet the enhancements will be in the checkpoints where we validate information on individual Social Security numbers, their names, individual dependents and those kinds of things,” Koonce says. All the verifications should be faster and more accurate with the new system. “And that allows us to cut down on fraud, and cut down on overpayments and those kinds of things,” Koonce says.

The processing of unemployment payments became a political issue earlier this year when a computer malfunction in March sent $27,000 in unemployment checks to 85 people who weren’t due benefits. The led to questions from Democratic lawmakers about how I-W-D director Teresa Wahlert was doing her job. Koonce says while this grant addresses payment concerns, it is not directly related. “It was something that we had already applied for when the Department of Labor put it out, so yeah, it was in the works before that,” Koonce says.

Part of the upgrade includes some new security features. “It allows us to track some more information quickly, it’s allowing us to make the claim information available in more languages as Iowa becomes a more diverse population. And it is automating some of what we call cross-matching,” Koonce says. She says that’s where they match what an employer says they paid in unemployment to the people who are requesting unemployment to speed of the process of identifying overpayment quicker on that end.

They hope to get the new software installed as quickly as possible. “There’s different amounts of time for different components, but we are given about 18 months from the U.S. Department of Labor to get it all up and done,” Koonce says. “Our goal is to get it up and running before that, be we do have that time frame to work within.”

The agency has to create specific software tailored to Iowa’s system. “While unemployment is a federal program, there’s state laws that regulate it, so the unemployment program is not the same in every state, and therefore you can’t just take something off the shelf,” Koonce says. The $1.78 million for the upgrade is all from federal funds and does not have to be matched by the state.

 

DOT looking to hire hundreds of snow plow operators

DOT snowplows. (file photo)

DOT snowplows. (file photo)

The Iowa Department of Transportation is planning to hire 200 to 300 more snow plow operators than usual for the upcoming winter season.

Andrea Henry is a spokesperson for the Iowa DOT. “We normally hire 300 to 400 (snow plow operators) and this year we’re hiring nearly 600 positions,” Henry says.

The boost in temporary workers is being made in preparation for especially bad winter storms that bring ice, high winds, and heavy snow. “We want to make sure when a big storm arises that we have plenty of coverage and we’re able to cover all routes successfully,” Henry says.

The agency wasn’t always able to do that last winter. “There were times when we needed to pull from other garages or other coverage areas,” Henry said.

Iowans who are interested in work as a temporary snow plow operator must have a Class A or B Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) with an air brake endorsement and be available between October 15 and April 15.

Henry doesn’t anticipate the DOT will have any problem finding the needed workers. “There are a lot of farmers and construction workers who have positions in the summertime and are looking for work in the winter, so we hope we can attract those folks into these winter maintenance positions,” Henry said.

Pay for the work ranges from $11.39 to $16.13 per hour. The snow plow jobs available across the state are posted at: iowadot.gov/careers.

Iowa Fertilizer Plant the focus of tonight’s gubernatorial debate

The fertilizer plant under construction in southeast Iowa was a major point of contention during this evening’s debate between the two major party candidates for governor. The incumbent, Republican Terry Branstad, defended his administration’s decision to award $110 million worth of state incentives to the Egyptian company that’s building the plant near Wever.

“We’re very proud of it and the CEO of the company recently said they’re just getting warmed up,” Branstad said. “When they complete this, they’re looking at expanding it.”

Democratic challenger Jack Hatch said that’s $700,000 worth of state incentives per job and that’s a “bad deal” for taxpayers.

“The state has the responsibility to invest in our communities and our small businesses, not the big, undeserving corporations like we have,” Hatch said.

The debate was held in Burlington — about 14 miles away from the construction site in neighboring Lee County. Branstad called the development a “great deal” and, over time, Branstad said local southeast Iowa governments will reap millions.

“The net result is the Fort Madison School District and Lee County are going to get net plus of $2.9 million additional tax revenue every year and the State of Iowa is also going to gain revenue,” Branstad said. “If it hadn’t located here, we wouldn’t get those additional tax revenues.”

Hatch said rather than giving $110 million worth of incentives to one company, there would have been greater economic impact if that money had been spread out among businesses statewide.

“The top-down approach that Governor Branstad has been using, where Des Moines picks winner and losers, is the wrong approach to use when we’re recovering from a recession,” Hatch said.

The two candidates quarreled over Branstad’s job creation claims and each questioned the other’s commitment to raising the minimum wage. The conduct of the campaign was a simmering issue during Saturday’s debate as well, with Hatch complaining about Branstad’s ads that criticize Hatch’s property development business.

“Governor, I’d like to ask that you take the key from one of your political heroes, Ronald Reagan and he said…’You stop lying about me and I’ll stop telling the truth about you,’” Hatch said, to applause from his supporters in the crowd.

Branstad didn’t back down.

“If he wants to disprove our claim that he has gained substantially and made millions of dollars at the taxpayers’ expense, I would challenge Senator Hatch to release four more years of his taxes,” Branstad said. “He’s only done one. I’ve done 24. I’m willing to do another four of the previous four before I came back as governor if he’s willing to do that.”

Branstad served four years as Iowa’s lieutenant governor, then 16 years as Iowa’s governor and left office in January of 1999. In 2010 he won a fifth term as governor. The political culture of Illinois was cited during Saturday’s hour-long debate. Hatch listed a number of controversies that have popped up over the last four years, including Branstad’s order to close the Iowa Juvenile Home and the disclosure that some state employees were being paid extra to stay quiet about their exit settlements with the state.

“This is the kind of leadership you’d expect from the governor of Illinois, not the governor of Iowa,” Hatch said.

Branstad responded.

“This is Iowa, not Illinois. Most of the former governors of Illinois are in prison. I’m back in office ’cause the people of Iowa trust me,” Branstad said, drawing applause from his supporters in the room. “They know me. They can rely on me.”

Tonight’s debate was sponsored by the Greater Burlington Partnership — an alliance of local chambers of commerce and by the Burlington Hawk Eye and WQAD television. The third and final debate between Branstad and Hatch will be held in Sioux City on October 20.

August unemployment rate matches July

The monthly unemployment report is out today. “Our August unemployment rate stayed the same as the previous month at 4.5 percent, that’s down from 4.7 percent for August of last year, and still below the national rate of 6.1 percent,” according to Kerry Koonce of Iowa Workforce Development.

Small gains in the job market were offset by some losses.”Overall we just added 200 jobs across the economy. The largest areas of gains were in the professional and business services and then in the leisure and hospitality — both of those adding 12-hundred,” Koonce explains. “The largest loss was 11-hundred in construction. This time of year some things are starting to slow down — they are finishing summer projects — that’s why you see those numbers.”

Koonce says there usually is not a lot of movement as summer winds down. “It’s typical this time of year, you had jobs added and people going back to work in the spring, and the construction industry kind of tables off here in the summer while they are not adding more. Then we’ll see some transition again as we move back into the fall,” according to Koonce. The unemployment rate started the year at 4.3 percent and moved up slightly for two months to 4.5, dropped back to 4.3 in April, moved to 4.4 in May and held in June.It then moved to 4.5 in July and August.

Koonce doesn’t expect a lot more movement the rest of this year. “I would guess that we’re probably going to hold in this low four range — for at least the rest of this year. We will have to see what the rest of the year brings, but probably hanging in the low four areas for the rest of 2014,” Koonce says. The total estimated number of unemployed Iowans remained at 76,700 in August. The current estimate is 1,400 lower than one year ago.

The jobs report finds nonfarm employment continuing to trend upward, adding 18,000 jobs annually (1.2 percent). The professional and business services sector has added the most private industry jobs (+3,200), and has been fueled by strengthened staffing in administrative and support positions. The education and health services sector also remains significantly up (+2,700) due primarily to growth in health care industries (+2,000). The information services sector remains the only sector to trail last year’s level (-600).

 

Hatch says Branstad’s new ‘center’ not an original idea (AUDIO)

Jack Hatch

Jack Hatch

Jack Hatch, the Democratic candidate for governor, says Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s latest policy proposal is nothing more than following through on a new federal law. This is Branstad’s pitch on the plan, from a speech the governor made Tuesday.

“This is the third item that we have brought up as a new proposal in this campaign and we’re calling it a ‘Center for Human Capital Enrichment,’” Branstad said. “This will be a public-private partnership…This would bring together all stakeholders to identify demand, skills gaps and training needs.”

Hatch said this morning that it’s not a new proposal. It’s part of a federal law that the state will be required to implement next year.

“There’s no creativity there. You could be Jack Hatch, Terry Branstad or anybody else. That is what the law required,” Hatch said. “…Does he have any ideas of his own?”

Hatch made his comments during a speech to the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an alliance of 21 central Iowa chambers of commerce.

AUDIO of Hatch’s appearance, 45:00

Branstad spoke to the group Tuesday (find the audio here).

Branstad insists his proposal is unique.

“This is an Iowa approach that focuses on the success we’ve had, but is designed to make sure that it’s coordinated,” Branstad said late this morning, “and that (the state Departments of) Education, Economic Development and Workforce Development are working together.”

Hatch accused Branstad of merely copying the requirements of the “Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014″ that President Obama signed in July.

“What he did was what any governor would have to do,” Hatch said. “He just accelerated it and embraced it as his own initiative.”

According to Hatch, it’s ironic Branstad is embracing a proposal signed into law by President Obama since Branstad has identified the federal government as the biggest obstacle to Iowa’s economy.

The new federal law, which Iowa Senator Tom Harkin helped craft, requires state workforce development agencies to coordinate with economic development and education initiatives to help businesses find the skilled workers they need.  The bill passed congress with bipartisan support.

(This post was updated at 12:47 p.m. with additional information.)

Branstad touts new ‘center’ to deal with work skills gap (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad is proposing creation of a new, state-run clearinghouse to help direct workers and students into college training programs and apprenticeships so they can land a job.

“One of the challenges the lieutenant governor and I hear as we travel the state is we have good jobs, but we can’t find people with the right skills,” Branstad says.

The “Center for Human Capital Enrichment” that Branstad envisions would be run by two stte agencies — the Iowa Workforce Development agency and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Branstad says educators as well as business people would be involved in the public-private partnership.

“Make sure that we’re doing a better job of preparing people and matching people with the kills with the jobs that are available in the state of Iowa,” Branstad says.

It’s more about coordination than about spending more money, according to Branstad, who says he may be able to order creation of this new center himself and appoint its leaders from government and the private sector himself rather than depend on legislators to pass a bill outlining the center’s structure and objectives.

Branstad outlined his idea Tuesday  during a speech to the Greater Des Moines Partnership which is an alliance of 21 central Iowa chambers of commerce. Jack Hatch, the Democrat running against Branstad this year, is set to address the same group on Thursday.

AUDIO of Brantsad’s remarks to Greater Des Moines Partnership, 45:00

Branstad to be questioned Nov. 26 about attempt to fire gay employee (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad says he’s too busy campaigning to be questioned about his attempt to force the state workers compensation commissioner to resign.

“I’m very interested and willing to have a deposition, but we’ll have it after the election,” Branstad said today during his weekly news conference. “The election’s only a month and a half away and my schedule between now and then is extremely busy.”

Branstad’s top aides asked Christopher Godfrey, the state workers compensation commissioner, to resign in early 2011 so Branstad could choose his own person for the position. Godfrey had been appointed to the job in 2009 by Democratic Governor Chet Culver. When Godfrey wouldn’t resign, his pay was cut dramatically. Godfrey has sued Branstad, arguing he was targeted for dismissal because he’s gay.

“This lawsuit was filed years ago and the plaintiff has delayed and delayed and delayed it,” Branstad said. “We have totally cooperated in every aspect and I think asking me to have a deposition before the election when my schedule is already extremely busy is not appropriate.”

Jack Hatch, the Democratic candidate challenging Branstad’s bid for a sixth term as governor, today said voters deserve to know more about Branstad’s actions on this case.

“I think he’s using the election as an excuse not to give the deposition,” Hatch said, “and not to have the case resolved before the election.”

Hatch suggests this case shows Branstad “bullies” state employees.

“For him to delay it is clearly a political tactic that is preventing people from really seeing what kind of a government and management of his government that he has,” Hatch said during a news conference.

The lead attorney handling the case against Branstad is Roxanne Conlin, Branstad’s opponent in 1982, which was his first successful campaign for governor. After negotiations between Conlin and the private attorney Branstad hired to handle the case, November 26 is the date set for Branstad to be questioned under oath in the defamation case. That’s the day before Thanksgiving.

Godfrey resigned from his state post in August to become the chief judge of a federal panel that rules on employee compensation appeals.  Branstad appointed an acting state workers compensation commissioner last week.

Find the audio of Branstad’s weekly news conference here.