North Dakota workers seek unemployment compensation during lockouts
6 February 2013
|BISMARCK, N.D. - Imagine being locked out of your job for 19 months. Nineteen months with no paycheck, seeing your savings depleted, your home lost to foreclosure, your children deprived of basic needs like clothing and school supplies.
|Some 1,300 workers at American Crystal Sugar have been enduring such an existence since Aug. 1, 2011. Those who live in Minnesota and Iowa have been able to depend on one lifeline – unemployment insurance. But the 420 who work at the Crystal Sugar plants in Hillsboro and Drayton, North Dakota, receive no unemployment benefits whatsoever.
Last week, the workers were among those who testified in favor of legislation that would change North Dakota law to require companies that lock out their employees to pay unemployment benefits.
If the legislation, Senate Bill 2224, were to pass, it would affect only future lockouts. Even so, Gayln Olson, president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco & Grain Millers Local 372G at the Hillsboro factory, and several other locked-out BCTGM members drove through a snowstorm to get to the state Capitol to voice their support.
The issue is a matter of fairness, he said.
“Lockouts should be treated the same as layoffs because, in a lockout, the employer forces workers out; the workers do not choose to leave their jobs,” he testified before the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee.
Most states agree. Thirty states provide unemployment benefits to locked-out workers in some or all circumstances, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. North Dakota takes the position that to do so would violate “neutrality” in a labor-management dispute.
Daniel Phillips, lead attorney for the locked-out employees, said the state’s position is not neutral.
“To prevent locked out employees from getting unemployment benefits really turns the act upside down by allowing the employer to prevent the employee from working and yet prohibit the employees from being awarded (benefits),” he testified.
Others testifying in favor of the legislation included its sponsors, Democrats Phillip Murphy of Portland and Tim Mathern of Fargo; the North Dakota Public Employees Association, the North Dakota Education Association, the International Association of Machinists and the North Dakota AFL-CIO.
Before the lockout, union negotiators told the company that their members would continue working under the terms of the old contract – which included a no-strike clause, Olson told lawmakers. Management refused this offer and had security personnel escort employees off the property.
“The choice to remove us from our employment was American Crystal’s, not the workers’,” Olson emphasized. “It was completely involuntary on our part.”
The effect of the lockout has been devastating for the workers and their communities.
Gayln Olson shared his personal story, describing how he and his family of six had no choice but to let their farmstead go and move into a three-bedroom home in town.
“Being locked-out has caused great hardship to us workers and our loved ones, especially the children,” he said. Gayln Olson has been employed for 36 years at the Hillsboro plant.
Brad Olson (no relation to Gayln) has been employed for 15 years at the Hillsboro plant. He has applied for numerous other jobs with no luck and he and his wife are surviving on her paycheck.
“My children are adults, but I cannot afford birthday or Christmas presents for my seven grandchildren,” he said. “But for many of my fellow workers who have young children this is especially difficult. The children are not able to participate in extracurricular activities. The most dramatic impact is that we are not able to live the life we use to – the loss of an income, the dignity of working and earning a paycheck – and consequently the stress level in our homes is very high, and this is especially damaging for young children.”
Brad Olson said communities suffer when people aren’t working and the income from unemployment benefits could make a difference.
At least half his paycheck is spent “at the grocery store, gas stations, the local bakery, and restaurants, local car dealers and local doctors and chiropractors,” he noted.
“I know this bill, if passed, will not apply to us, but I urge you to vote for SB 2224, for me, my family, and our communities, and for all hard working North Dakota workers,” Olson concluded.
The Senate committee took no action after hearing the legislation. The measure also is supported by Democrats in the North Dakota House of Representatives, but has not had a hearing in the House.