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Published August 26, 2011, 09:04 AM

Senator Wants Review of Decision Making Locked-out American Crystal Workers Ineligible For Unemployment

American Crystal Sugar workers at refining plants in North Dakota who are locked out in a contract dispute have been declared ineligible for unemployment benefits.

By: Patrick Springer, Associated Press

FARGO – American Crystal Sugar workers at refining plants in North Dakota who are locked out in a contract dispute have been declared ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, on Thursday asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to review a determination by officials of Job Service North Dakota that locked-out workers can’t draw unemployment checks.

State law prohibits unemployment insurance for workers embroiled in labor disputes, and judges have ruled that locked-out workers are involved in labor disputes, said Darren Brostrom, the state’s director of unemployment insurance.

Thus, based on his reading of state law, as well as a review of legislative intent and court precedents, Brostrom determined that American Crystal Sugar workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

A series of court decisions “made it very clear within the court cases that a lockout is a labor dispute,” he said.

Almost 1,300 American Crystal Sugar workers have been locked out since Aug. 1 after their union rejected the cooperative’s proposed contract.

A federal mediator brought the two sides together Thursday, but union representatives said no new contract was offered and no more negotiations are scheduled.

Minnesota law specifies that workers locked out by their employers during labor disputes are eligible for unemployment benefits.

American Crystal Sugar has plants in both states. In North Dakota, it has plants in Hillsboro and Drayton; in Minnesota, plants are in Moorhead and East Grand Forks.

Jurisdiction for unemployment insurance is determined by work location, not where the employee resides, Mathern said. Thus, American Crystal employees at its North Dakota plants are those who have been declared ineligible for unemployment benefits.

The Forum wasn’t able to reach union representatives Thursday for comment on the unemployment insurance issue. However, state officials said Thursday that a lawyer for the union has given notice that it plans to appeal the denial of benefits in a group appeal.

Because an administrative appeal is expected, an assistant attorney general said the office will refrain from issuing an opinion. The office has a longstanding policy against issuing appeals on state laws when administrative or legal challenges are pending.

Mathern also is having legislation drafted to declare locked-out workers eligible for unemployment insurance and hopes the issue can be addressed in the upcoming November special session.

He said state law is “silent” about locked-out workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits, since the law refers to labor disputes and does not mention situations where workers are barred from the worksite by their employer.

Because lockouts are very rate in North Dakota, a labor dispute that sidelines workers is almost always a strike called by the workers themselves, Mathern said. That’s not the case with American Crystal workers.

“To me, it’s a justice issue,” he said. “Somebody is willing to work, somebody else locked the door. Is that really different than being fired?

“That’s why we have unemployment compensation,” Mathern added, “when people are in a situation outside their control.”

Spring writes for the Forum in Fargo