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American Crystal Sugar workers seeking jobless benefits

CROOKSTON, Minn. - Locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. union employees have begun applying for unemployment benefits.

Many of the locked-out Minnesota workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, while workers in North Dakota are typically not eligible for them.

"In Minnesota, anytime you are laid off or removed from work for any reason you should be eligible for benefits," said Carolyn Toupin, workforce development manager at the Minnesota WorkForce Center in Crookston, which is part of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

North Dakota's statute does not differentiate between strikes, lockouts or other labor disputes.

Darren Brostrom, unemployment insurance director with the state's Job Service North Dakota, said workers in North Dakota generally are not eligible for unemployment benefits as the result of any labor dispute.

In general, locked-out employees in Minnesota need to have worked between a base period of April 2010 and March to be eligible for benefits, which vary by employee and are evaluated individually, Toupin said. The amount of unemployment benefits is based upon an employee's wages, she said.

Toupin estimated about 50 union workers visited her office Monday, the first day of the lockout, with another 40 visiting Tuesday and Wednesday, to seek information about filing unemployment claims.

The union has also been assisting locked-out employees in applying for unemployment, which can be done by telephone or on the Internet.

While North Dakota workers typically do not qualify for unemployment benefits during a lockout, anyone can file a claim, which would be investigated by a claims center. Keith Reitmeier, an area manager of Job Service North Dakota whose coverage area includes American Crystal's Drayton plant and extends to just north of the Hillsboro plant, said he knows of at least a dozen American Crystal workers who have applied for unemployment benefits. With telephone and Internet applications, the actual number may be much higher.

Approximately 1,300 of American Crystal's roughly 1,700 employees are union workers, according to spokesperson Jeff Schweitzer.

The company has about 1,000 full-time, year-round union employees who work in the company's five sugar beet processing plants in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead Drayton, Hillsboro and its two facilities in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa. Another 300 or so union workers are hired on to work during the harvest processing season in September and October.

American Crystal also has approximately 400 nonunion workers who work at the company's factories, technical services center and its headquarters facility in Moorhead, Schweitzer said.

American Crystal officials have declined to identify how many out-of-town replacement workers it has brought in to run its plants after it locked out workers following an overwhelming union vote rejecting the company's "final" contract offer. The company would not offer any details about who the workers are, where they came from or how much they are being paid.

John Radick, the CEO of Minnetonka, Minn.-based Strom Engineering, the firm American Crystal has contracted with to supply the replacement workers, declined comment this week when asked about the replacement workers.

Ryan Schuster writes for the Grand Forks Herald