Iowa Workforce Development to be less accessible for unemployed

No matter what happens during the ongoing state budget negotiations, Iowa Workforce Development will close 37 of its 55 field offices around the state, barely budging from initial plans to close 39 offices. The agency will maintain 16 full-service regional offices and two smaller field offices. State legislators aren't happy about the consolidation plans, which will force many unemployed Iowans to drive further for personal assistance. Agency officials counter that budget constraints forced their hand.

More details and background on this controversy are after the jump.  

Iowa Workforce Development announced plans in February to close 39 field offices, saying unemployed Iowans would be able to use "16 regional integrated one-stop offices and over 500 locally enhanced access points." Those local access points are computer terminals at which unemployed people could search for online information about programs. The original plan called for keeping regional offices open in Decorah, Dubuque, Mason City, Spencer, Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, Waterloo, Carroll, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Creston, Ottumwa and Burlington. Iowa Workforce Development later agreed to keep its Iowa City office, but in a scaled-down capacity. The 18th field office to remain open will be in Lee County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Iowa Workforce Development currently has two offices in that county, and  Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce told me on June 14 that the agency has not yet determined whether the Fort Madison or Keokuk branch will remain open. The final decision will be made only after next year's state budget has been signed into law. I asked Koonce whether more than 18 field offices might be maintained, depending on the budget allocations; she described that outcome as "very unlikely." Koonce told Lynn Campbell of this week that the agency was "$15 million short to fund all 55 offices at full staff," adding that federal funds that support the offices have also been reduced.

Democrats in the Iowa legislature have criticized the office closure plans for months, calling the proposal short-sighted and "a slap in the face to rural Iowa." The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate passed a budget bill to maintain all 55 Iowa Workforce Development offices. At a June 8 Senate Economic Development Committee hearing, Kathryn Schippers of United Way of Mahaska County spoke about how closing the local Iowa Workforce Development office would affect United Way's clients in her area. She testified that lack of public transportation would prevent many unemployed people from reaching an alternative office in Ottumwa or Des Moines. Schippers also said United Way lacks the capacity in funding, training, and personnel to "fill the void" that would be created by closing the Iowa Workforce Development office.

I don't recall hearing statehouse Republicans speak out against the Iowa Workforce Development restructuring, but one House Republican indicated this week that the majority had sought to prevent the office closures:

[S]tate Rep. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the other co-chairman of the Legislature's Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, on Monday called the department's assertion "wildly inaccurate." He said the 600-page omnibus budget bill approved this past week by the Iowa House requires the state agency to maintain the same number of offices as it had two years ago.

"We think we've put together the funding for one more year," said Schultz, who acknowledged a disagreement between lawmakers and the state agency on this issue. "Is the money there? They say, 'No,' and we say, 'Yes,' for one year." [...]

"It's the governor's way of downsizing and limiting services to Iowans. It's not right," [Senate Economic Development Appropriations subcommittee Chair Bill] Dotzler said. "At a period of high unemployment with 100,000 people out of work and gas at $3.50 to $4.00 a gallon, you can't expect people to drive 80 miles one way to get services."

Dotzler told Campbell he was "very disappointed" by the changes: "Maybe they should change their name to workforce un-development [...] Everything they've been doing has reduced services to dislocated workers." He disputed claims that the agency was $15 million short of the funds needed to maintain all 55 regional offices.

Dotzler said the spending plan by Senate Democrats calls to fund workforce development field offices at $17.3 million, or about $120,000 less than this past year. He said the House Republicans' budget calls for spending $2 million less than Senate Democrats. He called the agency's assertion that it's $15 million short "fuzzy math," although he said the department will see a reduction in federal money and would have to close some offices eventually.

"This is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans completely agree on in the Legislature. Here's a director who doesn't care what the Legislature thinks," Dotzler said.

Why should Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert care what the legislature thinks? State senators confirmed her in April, passing up their best chance to express their opposition to the governor's plan for serving the unemployed. Concerns about the field office closures nearly derailed Wahlert's confirmation, but in the end twelve Iowa Senate Democrats and all 24 Senate Republicans voted to confirm her. Dotzler has grounds to criticize, becase he was one of the 14 Democrats who voted against confirming Wahlert; click here for the roll call (pdf). The Republican legislators who are unhappy about the office closures should have insisted on a change in restructuring plans before lining up behind Branstad's appointee.

The delay in approving a state budget for the 2012 fiscal year has has clouded the future of a different Iowa Workforce Development program too:

Iowa Workforce Development's dozen "New Iowan Centers" in Muscatine, Postville, Iowa City, Ottumwa, Mount Pleasant, Des Moines, Sioux City, Orange City, Council Bluffs, Mason City, Denison and Carroll also could be affected by state budget cuts.

"Regarding the New Iowan Centers, until the budget has been finalized, we are not able to confirm any plans," [Iowa Workforce Development Communications Coordinator Katie] Hommer said. "... We have multiple plans right now, and final decisions won't be made until after a final budget is approved."

The centers, created in 2000 under the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack with the help of a federal grant, target immigrant and refugee populations and offer workforce development services to people who recently moved to Iowa and are seeking employment. They're credited with helping thousands of people find jobs.

The Iowa Workforce Development's website shows that 19 people are employed by the New Iowan Centers, from the bureau chief to regional supervisors, coordinators, workforce associates and outreach specialists.

Closing those centers would be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and I hope the 2012 budget includes enough funding to keep them open. Lots of low-profile state programs are likely to be slashed now that all sides have agreed on a general fund spending target of $5.99 billion next year.

  • Depressing

    If any ideological purist wants to tell me that there is no difference between Chet Culver and Terry Branstad again they obviously haven't looked at this issue.  

    • it is depressing

      especially since Branstad does this while promoting corporate tax cuts as some kind of job creation program.

      A computer terminal where a laid-off worker can access the web is no real substitute for personal contact with trained Iowa Workforce Development staff.

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