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N.D. Senate committee blocks bill to provide unemployment claim access for locked-out Crystal workers

BISMARCK -- A proposal to allow locked-out workers at American Crystal Sugar to file unemployment compensation claims in North Dakota was rejected today by the Senate Delayed Bills Committee.

The committee's three Republican members voted not to allow the bill to be introduced during this week's special session of the Legislature.

"We need to keep our focus" on the small number of pressing issues designated for consideration during the special session, Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said.

Also, "it almost feels as if I'm being asked to choose sides" in the long-running labor dispute, Wanzek said, "and I don't want to do that."

Workers at the company's Minnesota plants are able to claim unemployment benefits in that state.

The Senate Delayed Bills Committee's two Democrat members, including Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, voted to allow the bill's introduction.

"Critical needs don't always arise at convenient times," Schneider said. The locked-out workers "are not making an ideological point" by asking for coverage under the state's unemployment compensation program. "They haven't had a check in months."

The committee also rejected introduction of bills aimed at boosting assistance available to people affected by flooding and the booming oil industry, as Republicans noted that the ideas contained within those bills could be negotiated as amendments to the primary disaster relief bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

Union reacts

Several of the locked-out American Crystal workers sat quietly and listened as the committee considered their situation and the bill proposal.

In a joint statement issued after the committee met, North Dakota AFL-CIO President Gary Granzotto and union local President John Riskey expressed disappointment.

"Workers at the Drayton and Hillsboro American Crystal Sugar plants have been forced off the job by their employer," they said. "These workers did not walk off the job; they have been locked out of their place of work. It's time that North Dakota recognize the difference between a strike and a lockout."

Riskey said the unemployment compensation exclusion for workers at the Drayton and Hillsboro plants affects about 420 of the approximately 1,300 workers.

Brad Nelson, vice president of the union local at Drayton, said that he and about 200 other workers there were affected, and it has created significant hardship.

Likened to disaster

The unemployment compensation proposal was advanced by Sen. Phil Murphy, D-Mayville, who told the committee that in Traill County "there are people who are weakened and getting weaker" because of the lockout. He said 50 new families in Traill County have applied for social services in recent weeks.

"These people want to work," he said. "I believe our existing law (denying compensation to locked-out workers) is more of an oversight than an intentional thing.

"They need help heating their homes, feeding their kids," Murphy said. "I've seen the desperation on their faces."

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden and chairman of the committee, responded to Murphy's plea that his was a simple, one-line bill.

"What seems simple sometimes creates a raft of other concerns," Klein said.

Joining Schneider in voting to allow the bill to be introduced, Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, likened the American Crystal situation to the natural disasters that have hurt people, and he said "it's the North Dakota way" to go to their aid.

"We've had any number of disasters, and time after time we've stepped to the plate," Robinson said.

Joining Klein and Wanzek in voting not to accept the bill was Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton.

"It isn't as if they went into it (the labor dispute with American Crystal) blindfolded," he said, adding that the special session simply doesn't have time to deal with the issue.

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