Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published July 05 2012
Jobless benefits near end for some American Crystal locked-out workersGRAND FORKS - Unemployment benefits could soon run out for many locked-out employees of American Crystal Sugar Co.’s Minnesota factories, depending on when they applied for payments.
“Things just changed in Minnesota in terms of the maximum length in which you can receive benefits,” said Monte Hanson, a spokesman for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Workers at East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead factories automatically became eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits when the lockout began in August 2011.
During the state’s recovery from the recession and high unemployment, the initial 26 weeks were extended to 46 weeks and then 60, Hanson said. However, once Minnesota’s unemployment rate stabilized below 6 percent, benefits were capped at 46 weeks.
How that affects Crystal workers depends on when they applied for their benefits.
Workers at the Drayton and Hillsboro factories in North Dakota never were eligible because state law doesn’t differentiate between strikes, lockouts or other labor disputes.
Union leader John Riskey said he did not expect the expiration of benefits to affect the union’s strategy in negotiations with Crystal management. He pointed to the June 23 vote in which 63 percent of voting members rejected Crystal’s contract as an indication of workers’ unwillingness to accept the offer.
American Crystal management locked out around 1,300 employees Aug. 1 — 48 weeks ago — after both sides failed to agree on a new contract.
Hanson said workers who had received 46 weeks of benefits before June 23 would have been eligible for the additional 14 weeks. Those who did not reach the end of their benefits by that date could not receive the extension, he said.
Workers would have had to apply for benefits within the first two weeks of the lockout to have used 46 weeks of assistance by June 23.
“They’re sort of on the edge, essentially,” Hanson said. “It’s possible some qualify and some don’t.”
Riskey, who is president of Bakery Workers Local 167G, representing factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead, said he did not have a firm count of workers who are losing benefits, but he expects affected workers to identify themselves.
“I wish I knew that myself,” he said. “It just kind of happened in the last week.”
Many workers may have slipped under the June 23 cap.
On Aug. 3, just two days after the lock-out began, Carolyn Toupin, the manager of a Minnesota Work Force Center in Crookston, had told the Herald that around 90 workers had in-quired about benefits.
Riskey said the Bakery Workers international union has a hardship fund available for members, with a priority given to North Dakota-based workers.
Other unions have continued to give to the fund, he said. “We’ve gotten great help from all across the country.”
The Bakery Workers union has also been working with workforce officials in Minnesota to provide training and job search assistance for members seeking other employment until the lockout ends, he said.