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First Reading: Weathering the economic storm

Published (3/13/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Summit Academy students level an energy-efficient window. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)William Martin is confident in his employment abilities, but a series of hard-luck incidents caused him to become unemployed, divorced and in transitional housing.

“I do want to be a good manager of my own life. The majority of the time I do it on my own, but sometimes I do ask for help. I have no shame,” said Martin, who is raising two daughters after his 2006 divorce.

After gaining experience in the building trades through Goodwill Easter Seals, Martin landed a series of construction jobs; but without a union card, he’d repeatedly get laid off during the off-season and be in search of the next job. Car problems exacerbated his difficulties. Then, laid off from his job as a forklift operator at 3M, he entered a vocational program called Summit Academy Opportunities Industrialization Center in North Minneapolis. Four-fifths of the center’s 500 annual students enter the program unemployed, said Louis King, center president. The OIC is one of several operated throughout the state that prepares the unemployed for construction jobs.

Besides teaching Martin the hands-on skills he desires to become a welder, Summit Academy can hook him up with community support programs to help him with transportation, housing or legal needs.

“I’m just trying to get into a field where I can stay employed. I’m not worried about my work ethics,” said the 45-year-old student.

William Martin is a student at Summit Academy Opportunities Industrialization Center in the 100 Hard Hats program. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)More bill for their buck

Martin is like thousands of others affected by the recession.

Nearly half of the 20,700 jobs lost by Minnesotans in January came from the manufacturing industry, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Between 2008 and 2010, the recession may be to blame for 120,000 lost jobs, said State Economist Tom Stinson. So, while the federal stimulus package could create an estimated 45,000 new jobs for Minnesotans, it’s merely a start.

So where does government get the most bang for its’ buck?

Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch) thinks he has a win-win-win solution.

Kalin sponsors HF680, legislation that could employ thousands to improve the energy-efficiency of public buildings, thereby reducing reliance on state aid for heating bills.

Kalin has been on a fast track with his energy bill, presenting details to five House divisions. Comments and revisions are being made along the way, and the bill is expected to move through several more committees before landing on the House floor in one or two weeks … he hopes. A companion, SF657, sponsored by Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), was recommended to pass by the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee and referred back to the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill designates the Office of Energy Security as the fiscal agent for federal energy-related stimulus funds, and the office would work with other state departments to administer new and existing energy-saving programs.

New green jobs coupled with energy-efficiency upgrades in schools and other public buildings are expected to result in net savings to the state’s unemployment and utility coffers.

A window replacement program is one of the energy initiatives.

Minnesota is often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Windows,” and window companies, such as Andersen Corporation, which laid off 400 workers in January, stand to benefit from the stimulus package. Marvin Windows and Doors has not experienced layoffs.

“When the demand is there, we’ll do what it takes to fulfill that demand,” said John Kirchner, public relations manager for Marvin Windows and Doors. Headquartered in Warroad, population 1,700, the company employs 2,800 people, the vast majority from Minnesota, Kirchner said.

Besides window replacement, homes and public buildings may also be eligible for other energy upgrades through a weatherization program.

About $134 million in federal stimulus money is expected for weatherizing low-income houses and rental units, said Kalin. This cash infusion to the state program would mean safer living conditions in more homes at an accelerated pace. Currently, fewer than 3,800 Minnesota homes are weatherized per year. The stimulus funds could boost that number up to 35,000. Five hundred energy auditors will be needed to assess homes, plus thousands of energy technicians to perform the work. Kalin proposes that unemployed workers be given priority for training and hiring practices.

“They not only replace unemployment checks with paychecks for … potentially thousands of Minnesotans within 90 days of the governor’s signature on this bill, it also saves us tax dollars on the public renovation side. It saves us tax dollars on the low-income heating assistance households that rely on that public assistance. By tightening up those homes and weatherizing those homes, we’ll move down a road where hopefully within our lifetime … we might be able to wean Minnesota off of the need for … low income heating assistance,” said Kalin.

Energy auditors would look for problems with insulation, mold, fire hazards, or potential explosions from faulty boilers, furnaces and water heaters.

To meet the demand for trained energy auditors and installers, DEED, together with OES and the Office of Higher Education, would develop a plan to spend stimulus funds on training programs.

For example, Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis would offer the Residential Energy Auditor training program through a grant provided by the Office of Energy Security. OICs, such as Summit Academy, could also receive funding to provide weatherization technician training.

The OES could also enlist help from up to 29 nonprofit organizations, known as the Minnesota Community Action Partnership. Scattered throughout the state, these CAP agencies have traditionally delivered weatherization and energy assistance at the local level.

“As soon as you get us the money, we’re ready to spend it,” said Patrick McFarland, executive director for Anoka County CAP, which provided emergency energy assistance to more than 4,100 households last year.

Accountability and transparency

Advocates for the disadvantaged and minorities have been part of the evolution of the bill since its Feb. 9 introduction. According to the bill, preferential hiring and training is to be given to persons from communities where unemployment is disproportionately high.

“We want a workforce that reflects the demographics of Minnesota,” said the Rev. Paul Slack, pastor of New Creation Church and a member of ISAIAH, a coalition for racial and economic justice. “African-Americans and other people of color have chronically been out of work for decades,” Slack told a House division last month.

In debate over non-compliant hiring practices by the Department of Transportation, Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) said, “It takes on special emotion now because we read in the newspaper that there is a huge infusion of federal money intended to put people to work … and the questions have to do with, will it put everyone to work equally?”

Ron Elwood, an attorney at the Legal Service Advocacy Project, echoed the need for job equality. “I think the Legislature should make it unambiguously clear what their objectives are with respect to ensuring the fair and proportional inclusion of communities of color, low-income communities and women in the mix.”

Electrician Al Rademacher, who was at the Capitol for IBEW Day on the Hill Feb. 18, said 35 percent of his union members have been out of work. “There needs to be a wage structure so they’re not one step away from welfare. We need to have jobs where people can have livable wages.”

Kalin repeatedly said he did not want this bill to create the kind of low-wage jobs where applicants find it necessary to fill out both an employment and a state-assistance application.

The bill requires the OES to give a progress report by Sept. 1, 2009, with a complete accounting of the following benchmarks: projects funded, average wage of jobs created/retained, energy savings calculation for each project, fund balances and training provided along with the number of trainees and compliance reports. Subsequent quarterly reports would be due through September 2010.

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