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State’s new workforce chief inherits strained system

For the new labor secretary, Joanne Goldstein, the agency’s top priority is to help people find and keep jobs. For the new labor secretary, Joanne Goldstein, the agency’s top priority is to help people find and keep jobs.
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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Joanne Goldstein, the state’s secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, has had the good fortune of taking office just as the Massachusetts labor market begins an apparent turnaround. Now, with employers hiring again, Goldstein faces the next challenge: helping tens of thousands of unemployed workers get those jobs.

In the first extensive interview since her appointment in January, Goldstein said the agency’s top priority remains providing training, support, and other services to help people find and keep jobs. For example, the agency recently launched a program with Microsoft Corp. to provide free software training to more than 25,000 Massachusetts residents, and will soon award some $2 million in grants for companies to provide on-site education for workers, from classes for general equivalency diplomas to training in the latest technologies.

“The labor market is going in the right direction, and I think we’re going to see more job growth,’’ she said. “We really have to look at where the hiring pockets are, and try to see how we can help people fit into them.’’

As secretary, Goldstein oversees a sprawling agency of about 1,700 people, and is responsible for a wide range of programs, including occupational safety, labor relations, and worker’s compensation. Over the past two years, most attention has been focused on unemployment and training as the historic national recession pushed unemployment in Massachusetts to the highest levels since the 1970s.

The state economy has begun to create jobs again — nearly 12,000 in the past two months — and the unemployment rate has slipped, to 9.3 percent last month from 9.5 percent in February. Still, more than 300,000 Massachusetts workers remain unemployed.

In an interview last week, Goldstein said the focus remains helping workers get through the tough times. For example, she is pressing to fix a glitch in federal law that penalizes people who work part time to supplement unemployment. This glitch can reduce their benefits significantly if these workers need to extend them beyond a year, which has not been uncommon during the economic downturn.

Goldstein has urged the state’s congressional delegation to amend the federal law. She is also looking at possible state legislation to solve the problem for thousands of Massachusetts residents. “It is something that is painful to people who want to work, but could lose 60, 80 percent of their weekly unemployment check,’’ she said.

The depth and duration of the recession has tested the unemployment system as never before, Goldstein said, and over the longer term it needs to be reexamined. The state should look at ways to improve the response to claimants and businesses, including upgrading technology to allow for faster and easier filing.

For now, she said, her agency must continue to provide services as best as it can, and hope that the labor market continues to improve. Meanwhile, job seekers should keep looking for work and use state resources, such as the agency’s 37 career centers, which provide counseling, job listings, and information on training opportunities.

“It’s very hard to be unemployed, to apply for jobs and get no response,’’ she said. “But the best message I can give is not to give up hope.’’

Goldstein, 60, succeeds Suzanne Bump, who resigned at the end of last year to run for state auditor. Prior to that, Goldstein led Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Fair Labor Division, which enforces state wage and hour laws. Among her most prominent cases was a $3 million settlement with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. over allegations that the company made employees work through meal breaks, which are required by state law.

“It was one of the best decisions I made,’’ Coakley said of hiring Goldstein. “She was a great champion for workers, but there was also an appreciation by businesses that play by the rules. If laws aren’t being enforced fairly and evenly, the companies that follow the law get undercut.’’

A labor lawyer by profession, Goldstein in 1974 became the first woman to practice union-side labor law in Massachusetts. After interviewing with the firm at which she began her career, Goldstein recalled, she received a travel expense check. The memo line had this notation: “Girl to be hired.’’

Despite a career spent representing unions, including 11 years as general counsel to the Utility Workers Union of America, Goldstein is regarded as an honest broker willing to listen to all sides, according to business and labor leaders.

Richard C. Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, said Goldstein invited him to meet with her shortly after her appointment. Later, they worked together on recently approved legislation that prevented a 40 percent increase in business unemployment insurance taxes.

“We’re not going to always agree,’’ Lord said, “but she’s accessible. She strikes me as fair, upfront, and straightforward.’’

Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, described Goldstein as knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled.

“She knows the issues that come before her department, and she knows how to negotiate,’’ Haynes said. “She’s the perfect example of someone being right where they should be.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.