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Christopher Bjorke, Forum News Service, Published January 23 2013

North Dakota Legislature: Bill would unlock benefits for locked-out workers

GRAND FORKS – A Portland Democrat has introduced a bill that would extend unemployment benefits to workers locked out of their jobs but is not sure if American Crystal Sugar workers would qualify.

“I just see it as a situation that doesn’t seem quite right to me,” said Sen. Phil Murphy on his proposal to add an exemption for anyone who “has been locked out by that individual’s employer and prevented from working” to the section of state law disqualifying striking workers from unemployment benefits.

Murphy said he did not know if employees from American Crystal’s North Dakota factories would qualify for payments since the lock-out is 17 months old.

“That would be up to Job Service (North Dakota),” he said.

An effort to extend benefits to locked-out workers during the November 2011 special session of the Legislature was blocked from introduction in a committee.

That session was three months after American Crystal locked out its workers. Workers at the company’s Minnesota factories were eligible for unemployment payments while those in its North Dakota facilities were not.

Like Murphy, the other sponsors of the bill are Democrats: Sens. Connie Triplett, of Grand Forks, and Tim Mathern, of Fargo, and Reps. Bill Amerman, of Forman, Richard Holman, of Mayville, and Gail Mooney, of Cummings.

Murphy, Holman and Mooney all represent District 20, the location of American Crystal’s Hillsboro factory.

Murphy said he had not been in contact with union officials representing American Crystal workers, and he did not want it to be considered to have been written for unions.

“If it’s perceived that way, it could poison the well,” he said. “I would guess it would be an uphill battle.”

The North Dakota Supreme Court is considering the eligibility of employees of the North Dakota factories. Murphy said he decided to introduce the bill because the court does not say when it will announce decisions.

“I held the bill for the first couple of weeks just hoping the court would have a verdict,” he said.

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