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The last elevator operators in Minnesota, maybe

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: May 2, 2014 - 9:37 AM

Darlene Lewis wears white gloves to her job in the third elevator to the right in the Young-Quinlan Building in downtown Minneapolis. Lewis has a smile for every passenger, many of whom are corporate movers-and-shakers and high-powered lawyers. Lewis is 80, retired from Control Data and has ridden up and down five floors who knows how many times for the past eight years.

She is not, however, licensed or certified by the state of Minnesota. That apparently flouts a state law created in 1955, back when most elevators required someone at the helm to get passengers safely in and out, up and down. 

Elevator operator certification is one of the "useless and obsolete" laws targeted by Gov. Mark Dayton for political destruction in the "Unsession." As with some of these other laws, though, the reality is a few floors down from the rhetoric. 

The governor noted that only two elevator operators remained in Minnesota, and that the law required them to get the state's permission to stay in that line of work. I wanted to find those two individuals so I could understand what this burdensome certification was all about.

My first stop was James Honerman, the spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. He said the state had no program any more, and to his knowledge, elevator operator was a defunct profession. He did venture a guess to the last buildings that had them. One of them was the Pioneer-Endicott Building in St. Paul. It has been renovated into ritzy apartments, but its formerly staffed elevators are now self-serve. The other was the Young-Quinlan Building, built in 1926 and once home to a fancy department store, and now a retail-office complex listed as a local historic landmark by the city. 

I walked over to Nicollet Mall, entered two sets of doors and made my way to the elevators. To my surprise, Lewis was standing by the third elevator. She gave me a tour of her workspace - the two pedals that powered up and powered down the elevator, the crank that made it go up or down, the locking mechanism and the cage she closed and opened so many times. 

Lewis, and the other Young-Quinlan elevator operator, David Laemmle, told me that no one had ever told them about certification. Honerman noted that the law allowed the city of Minneapolis to have its own certification program, but the Minneapolis building official, Patrick Higgins, said the city doesn't have one.

In eight years, Lewis has never had an emergency on the Young-Quinlan elevator. So I think that if the state reinstates certification for elevator operators, Lewis should be able to skip the test.

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