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By TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published March 12 2013

Amendment targets locked-out workers

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 say they believed the current law regarding unemployment benefits did 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 if passed, the bill would make it more clear that the Legislature does not believe that locked-out workers deserve unemployment checks.

If the bill with the amendment passes, it 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 because American Crystal prevented workers from reporting to their jobs, the workers 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.

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.