March temperatures could determine whether Iowa’s outdoor construction industry thrives or withers—all because of a new law limiting unemployment that affects laid-off workers over the winter.
By law, construction companies can’t pour concrete for roads, bridges, and other state and federal infrastructure projects unless the temperature is 35 degrees and rising. Iowa’s 26-week unemployment law used to cover those cold months.
Now that’s limited to 16 weeks, through an Iowa law championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that went into effect last year. That worries employers like Marce Cockburn of I&A Construction in Sioux City because that time is already up. A cold March could mean her workers will be forced to get new jobs and quit in an industry where workers are already hard to come by.
“If I have a month where we can’t start working and they don’t have another source of income, like unemployment insurance, they’re going to go out and look for another job,” she told Starting Line this week. “Then, I’m going to be in trouble.”
Due to the special circumstances of her business, Cockburn wants lawmakers to exempt the industry from the unemployment law. But she’s having a hard time getting her representatives to listen.
“I don’t know how they’re OK with it,” she said. “I was really shocked not one single Republican was looking at it.”
Cockburn said the only one who listened to her was Rep. J.D. Scholten (D-Sioux City).
“That has really hurt these guys,” Scholten said of the law.
Construction and labor advocates, as well as many Iowa Democrats, warned of this coming problem since Reynolds signed the measure slicing unemployment benefits 38% last summer. The law went into effect immediately, meaning this winter was its first test run.
“They’re worried once unemployment runs out, (employees) won’t come back,” Scholten said.
It’s not as if employers got a 38% decrease in what they pay into employment, either: Cockburn said she paid 7.5% of payroll on unemployment tax last year and says it went down to just 7% this year—a decrease of 6.7%.
Still, she said that was only a secondary issue to her workforce problem.
“I don’t mind paying what I’m supposed to pay if I know that my employees are going to be taken care of at the time we go through this (winter) layoff,” she said.
by Amie Rivers
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