Wellstone, Senate panel meet laid-off workers, pledge aid

Minnesotans struggling in the midst of a faltering economy met with Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., in Bloomington on Monday to ask for national aid.

Although the state and national economies faced a recession prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the wave of company layoffs since has Congress scrambling to provide aid and rejuvenate the economy.

“Handshakes in Minnesota used to be about ‘Hello, how are you?’ Now people are clasping my hand, saying ‘Please help me, I’m out of work,'” said Wellstone, who organized the Senate subcommittee hearing on employment, safety and training.

More than 300 leaders from business, labor, economic and rural communities – as well as students from local high schools – packed into the conference room at the Bloomington Thunderbird Hotel, where they heard from a few of the 4,500 Minnesota Northwest Airlines employees who were laid off this month.

“I do not know what to do. My industry … has been devastated, and there are no other jobs to go to,” said Hydra Juhor, an Ethiopian refugee who said she has not yet received any government assistance. Juhor was a hospitality industry worker for Northwest.

Juhor said she has eight children and no health coverage. She pleaded with the delegation “to make sure that people like me and my co-workers are not left forgotten.”

Wellstone proposed an $85 billion stimulus package last week, which would expand unemployment benefits, job training and health care while providing emergency assistance for small businesses. The proposal would also allocate tax rebates of up to $300 for 34 million taxpayers who did not receive federal rebates this year.

Wellstone’s proposal is one of several brought before Congress in the past few weeks, all of which aim to assist displaced workers.

Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation – including Sen. Mark Dayton (D), and Reps. Betty McCollum (D), Jim Oberstar (D), Jim Ramstad (R) and Martin Sabo (D) – stressed the need for unification despite party differences.

“These are tough times for every Minnesotan and every American. We’re in a state of war and the country’s in a recession … partisanship has no place in the issues we’re discussing today,” said Ramstad, the only Republican member of Congress in attendance.

Business leaders’ relief suggestions ranged from making business travel 100 percent tax deductible to increasing loans for small businesses.

At the meeting, which Wellstone called “the most serious Senate hearing I’ve ever had in the state of Minnesota,” delegation members said they need to boost consumer confidence in flying.

But economists said Congress must go beyond increasing airport security and air travel. Tom Stinson, University professor and 15-year state economist, said at least $50 billion needs to be immediately pumped into the economy.

“Congress needs to act quickly … What the economy needs is a quick, controlled injection of additional spending,” Stinson said.

Sung Sohn, executive vice president of Wells Fargo Banks, argued for a more cautious approach. He said the economy’s future will “depend upon how the war on terrorism unfolds.”

Sunday’s U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan were not discussed at the hearing; only Dayton pointedly voiced support for President George W. Bush.

“These actions are absolutely necessary,” Dayton said. “It is clear from watching the tape of Osama bin Laden that he is an implacable enemy of the USA and everything we stand for.”

Although Dayton would not voice support for either side, he said he wanted a quick resolution of the ongoing state workers strike, involving 22,000 union members. He plans to meet with union leaders and Gov. Jesse Ventura before returning to Washington, D.C.


Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]