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Published March 12, 2013, 10:12 PM

North Dakota amendment would not block benefits for locked-out workers

Locked out employees would not receive unemployment benefits under an amendment added Monday to a state Job Service bill. The amendment was offered to House Bill 1112 by a 5-2 vote in the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee.

By: TJ Jerke, Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Locked out employees would not receive unemployment benefits under an amendment added Monday to a state Job Service bill.

The amendment was offered to House Bill 1112 by a 5-2 vote in the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fargo, said the amendment, “is providing clarity to get back to where we thought the law was.” He is among those who says they believed the current law regarding unemployment benefits does not include locked out employees.

But a recent state Supreme Court ruling said American Crystal Sugar Co. employees can receive unemployment benefits since they were locked out from their jobs and still are willing to work.

The current legislation, if approved, would not affect the benefits to Crystal workers.

Klein said that if the bill with the amendment passes, it makes it more clear that the Legislature does not intend that locked-out workers deserve unemployment checks.

If the bill with the amendment passes, the bill will be heard in a conference committee to hash out the differences.

The amendment would add language to state code denying benefits due to “any kind of labor dispute, including a strike, sympathy strike or lockout.” In some instances, it would redefine a “work stoppage” as a labor dispute.

North Dakota law says workers who intentionally involve themselves in a labor dispute, such as a strike, are unable to receive unemployment. In the case of American Crystal, workers wanted to continue with their jobs, but were locked out – an issue that is in the gray area of state law.

The court's final decision said American Crystal prevented workers from reporting to their jobs and are not barred from receiving benefits.

Justice Daniel Crothers voted to allow locked out employees benefits. He said Tuesday he didn’t think the current wording was ambiguous, although the court was split on its interpretation of the state code.

“The courts read what the Legislature wrote, and if the Legislature doesn’t agree we are reading it correctly, they can rewrite it,” he said, which is what the Legislature is doing with the proposed amendment.

Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, in his dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court decision, said the issue boils down to a legislative decision, calling the law and legislative history of the issue ambiguous.

Without clarification by the Legislature, the state law may get a different interpretation in future cases.

Sen. Phil Murphy, D-Portland, proposed a bill that failed in the Senate that would have given locked out workers unemployment benefits.

Murphy noted the “huge divide” in how locked out Crystal workers are treated in North Dakota, where workers were only recently granted benefits, and Minnesota, where they have been getting unemployment checks for months.

In North Dakota, state government is controlled by Republicans; in Minnesota, power is held by Democrats.

“Republicans often are kind and caring people but when it comes to a party vote, they don’t have sympathy for those people,” he said.

He said denying benefits is “just kicking them when they are down.”

Klein expressed more sympathy for American Crystal and other employers that pay into the unemployment insurance fund.

Klein said the contract the company offered was endorsed by many organizations, such as the National Labor Relations Board, which said it was a good contract.

“I see why (American Crystal) did what they did,” he said.


Reach Jerke at tjerke@forumcomm.com or 701-255-5607.

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