Jobless complain about shabby state treatment
ST. PAUL -- Members of Jack Thronson's union are struggling, and not just because many have lost jobs.
Thronson told a Minnesota House committee on Monday that they face trying times just dealing with agencies that are supposed to help them get unemployment insurance payments and other state help.
"People are getting frustrated going through the answering machine," he said.
Thronson is president of the United Steel Workers of America union at the Keewatin Taconite mine in northeastern Minnesota and joined others in criticizing how the state is dealing with an increasing number of unemployed workers during the recession.
In Chanhassen, southwest of Minneapolis, about 200 workers were laid off from a printing plant and ex-employee Tim Olson said many never have been told what help the state offers.
"Nobody has any time to call you back," he said. "Their voice mails are full."
Chairman Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he called the committee meeting after talking to several Iron Range constituents who complained of poor service from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and its affiliates.
Laid-off Minnesotans "are falling through the cracks," Rukavina said.
For instance, senior citizens, immigrants and others with few computer skills are being told to use computers to get answers, Rukavina and some of those testifying said, as state workers refuse to help.
Rukavina said that several constituents have asked him for help getting unemployment checks. Once he calls the department, the checks are sent immediately, he added. "That shouldn't be my job."
Department Commissioner Dan McElroy promised to look into the complaints, but said he has heard about few problems from the 175,000 people now on unemployment and the 21,000 a week who use the state's workforce centers to hunt work.
McElroy said that about new staff members are being trained to help unemployed Minnesotans, but it takes time to bring new employees up to speed. Rukavina said that with millions of dollars in federal funds, on top of state funds, McElroy's department should be doing a better job.
The commissioner said telephone waits have been reduced to a couple of minutes on average, with the longest an unemployed person waits for help about 5 minutes. A few months ago, the waits were much longer.
"We do our best to give good service," McElroy said, but at times the staff is overwhelmed.
McElroy suggested that people call or visit unemployment or workforce offices on Thursdays and Fridays, their least busy days.
Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, said that some job types he represents are experiencing unemployment rates topping 30 percent, with a statewide average of 8.4 percent.
"Their lives are in turmoil," Melander said, adding that perhaps thousands of Minnesotans no longer even are trying to get money or training from state unemployment programs.
Most complaints revolve around lack of good customer service. As David Zander of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans said, while saying Laotians are facing a tough time getting state help: "'Minnesota nice' seems to have gone out the window."
Millions of federal economic stimulus dollars have flowed to Minnesota's unemployment programs, including:
-- $130 million to help pay people who just lost jobs, including giving every unemployment recipient $25 a week more.
-- $20.6 million to help train laid-off workers.
-- $16.1 million to provide nearly 6,000 summer jobs to youths 15 to 24.
-- $6.9 million to hire 200 temporary staff to help in counseling and job searches.
-- $6.3 million to help move to higher paying jobs.