Unemployment fix infuriates construction trades

Dems say final deal will be less onerous for workers
2009-03-30T00:00:00Z Unemployment fix infuriates construction tradesPatrick Guinane
patrick.guinane@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078

INDIANAPOLIS | Steven Erffmeyer drives an asphalt truck for a road construction crew during the seven or eight months a year that the weather cooperates.

"Every year we get laid off," the Highland resident and Teamsters Local 142 member said. "We depend on unemployment to get us through the winter, that and what we save up."

Erffmeyer is among more than 5,000 union construction workers in Northwest Indiana who likely would lose unemployment benefits if lawmakers press ahead with a measure Republicans muscled through the state Senate last week.

Indiana's unemployment fund went broke in December, though the state continues to cut benefit checks thanks to more than $500 million in federal loans. Senate Republicans presented a bailout that bites both employers and workers, but the initial plan -- now in negotiations with House Democrats -- is drawing loud complaints from labor.

"They're trying to balance it on the backs of working-class people," said Randy Palmateer, business manager of the Northwest Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council. "This is the most anti-worker bill I've ever seen."

The proposal, House Bill 1379, seeks to raise $328 million a year through higher employer taxes and save $544 million annually by trimming worker benefits and ending what Republicans have dubbed "fraud, waste and abuse."

Among the most contentious components is a bid to classify construction and manufacturing workers who toil less than 42 weeks a year -- up from the current 26 weeks -- as seasonal employees ineligible for unemployment benefits.

"There are obviously people who are using the fund every year as part of their income, and I don't think the fund was ever intended for that," said Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne. "At the same time, a lot of those workers are highly paid and are compensated because they don't work all year round."

State labor statistics show that construction workers earn an average of $41,845 a year, or about $5,400 more than the average wage for all Hoosiers.

David Fagan, the Merrillville-based financial secretary for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, said the 4,500 Indiana members of the union earn an average of about $65,000 a year. He considers the Senate plan a "bad economic policy" that "singles out the construction industry."

The union in the past has backed Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who calls the Senate unemployment plan "an excellent effort."

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