Minnesota wants to work


In an intense and emotionally charged hearing with Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief of staff at the Capitol today, unemployed and under-employed Minnesotans shared their experiences struggling to make ends meet.

Gretchen Gubbins, a prep cook whose unemployment-insurance benefits are set to expire this week, choked up as she talked about how frustrating her job search has become.

“I applied for 18 jobs last week, and I haven’t heard crap from any of them,” Gubbins said. “I can’t seem to find work, and the jobs that are out there pay $8.25 or $9 per hour. I’ve done everything to cut back, but how can you live on that?”

Gubbins and five other Minnesotans appeared on a panel assembled by the Minnesota Wants to Work coalition, an organizing effort of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the St. Paul and Minneapolis regional labor federations and Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate.

The coalition, which seeks “to gather workers under one roof for the opportunity to access resources and take action in the name of job creation,” delivered 1,000 letters to Dayton from members concerned about unemployment and the state’s economy.

As the 2011 legislative session entered its final week, workers like Tony Hajder, a member of Sprinkler Fitters Local 417, implored Dayton and legislative leaders to put aside partisan bickering and deliver on campaign promises to create jobs.

Hajder, who spent three of the last four years on the bench, said he recently began tapping his pension to pay health insurance premiums and mortgage bills.

“It’s been really hard to look at my kids and tell them not to expect much for Christmas or for their birthdays,” Hajder said.

Tina Smith, Dayton’s chief of staff, praised the panelists for having the “guts and commitment” to share their stories, helping put human faces on the “decisions being made in this building right now.”

“Budgets are not just about money, they’re about people and priorities and values,” Smith said. “We need to get to a place in Minnesota where opportunities for you – and for everyone – aren’t shrinking, they’re growing.”

Smith, who pledged to brief Dayton on the listening session, reiterated the governor’s support for a $1 billion infrastructure bill, which would create 28,000 jobs in the construction sector, and for a “balanced approach” to fixing the state’s projected $5 billion budget shortfall in the next biennium.

By contrast, Republican majorities in the Legislature have refused to give Dayton’s infrastructure bill a hearing, and they are pushing a “cuts-only” approach to the budget shortfall, resisting the governor’s call for higher taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans.

That approach, Smith said, “will continue to hurt our higher-education and job-retraining systems, and will make it really hard for people to get health care.”

JOBS NOW Coalition Executive Director Kris Jacobs, who moderated the listening session, said failure to invest in infrastructure, education and workforce development programs over the past decade has left Minnesota “at a crossroads.”

After gaining 562,000 jobs in the 1990s, the state lost 63,000 jobs from 2001 to 2010, Jacobs said. Now, there are 10 unemployed Minnesotans competing for every full-time job opening.

Michael Walker doesn’t need labor-market statistics to know how scarce jobs have become in Minnesota. A member of Carpenters Local 1644, Walker has been unemployed since suffering an injury on the job four years ago.

Walker said unemployment “has caused a great strain on my family,” and forced the single father of two to make some difficult choices.

“I’ve never been on medical assistance or food stamps, but I’m not too proud to say I need that to take care of my children,” Walker said. “I’m on the verge of losing my house.”

Walker said he tries to stay positive, but added that watching Republican majorities in the Legislature put the richest Minnesotans before struggling families like his leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

“They’re sitting in million-dollar homes, taking our jobs overseas, and we’re out of work,” he said. “Something is wrong with that picture.”