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Published November 15, 2011, 07:34 PM

ND Lawmakers Seeking Jobless Benefit For Locked-out Sugar Workers

(AP) — Democratic state lawmakers plan to ask North Dakota's unemployment agency to reconsider its refusal to pay jobless benefits to about 400 American Crystal Sugar Co. employees.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

(AP) — Democratic state lawmakers plan to ask North Dakota's unemployment agency to reconsider its refusal to pay jobless benefits to about 400 American Crystal Sugar Co. employees.

An Iowa law that has been interpreted in favor of paying benefits to American Crystal's locked-out workers in that state is almost identical to North Dakota's law, the legislators said in a letter to Darren Brostrom, Job Service North Dakota's director of unemployment insurance.

The agency's contention that the workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits "seems to us to be a perverse interpretation, intended to put the employees at a disadvantage in labor negotiations," they wrote.

Sen. Philip Murphy, D-Portland, said Tuesday the letter is likely to be submitted next week. Brostrom, provided a copy by The Associated Press, declined to comment Tuesday.

During last week's special session of the North Dakota Legislature, Murphy unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a bill to explicitly make locked-out workers eligible for unemployment payments. North Dakota's maximum jobless benefit is $470 a week.

The letter argues that existing North Dakota law can be interpreted as allowing benefits, a conclusion Job Service previously rejected.

"If they're able and willing to take a good look at it, and realize that there's certainly another way to look at the same wording, it can't hurt," Murphy said.

North Dakota law disqualifies a worker from collecting jobless benefits if the person's unemployment is because of a "strike, sympathy strike, or a ... work stoppage dispute of any kind which exists because of a labor dispute."

It does not mention lockouts, a circumstance in which a business refuses to allow its regular employees to come to work. American Crystal's workers have said they were willing to work under their old contract while negotiations for a new one continued.

"If you go on strike, you don't show up for work. You refuse to go to work. This is the polar opposite of that," Murphy said. "In this case, it's the employer that is saying, 'You can't go to work here.'"

The lockout, which began Aug. 1 after contract negotiations failed, affects about 1,300 union-represented workers at American Crystal, a sugar beet cooperative based in Moorhead, Minn. The union's seven-year agreement expired July 31.

American Crystal runs processing factories in Drayton and Hillsboro in eastern North Dakota, and in Crookston, East Grand Forks and Moorhead in western Minnesota. The cooperative's farmer shareholders raise sugar beets in the Red River Valley.

Locked-out company workers in Minnesota and Iowa have been paid unemployment benefits. Minnesota law allows the practice, and Iowa agency rules that flesh out the state law say workers qualify for payments if they are willing to work under an expired contract's terms "for a reasonable period of time while a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated."

Job Service North Dakota did not consider laws in other states in making its determination that American Crystal's North Dakota workers weren't eligible, Brostrom said.

"Each state has their own laws in almost every facet of the unemployment insurance program, and different scenarios pop up," he said.

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