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Unemployment benefits expire for laid-off miners

With no special session, the earliest the Minnesota Legislature could take action is January.

Aerial view of Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.
Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.
Clint Austin / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune
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SILVER BAY — As unemployment benefits for hundreds of laid-off miners expired in November, current and future state lawmakers are again proposing legislation to extend those benefits.

But the earliest a bill could be considered is January, when the Minnesota Legislature convenes for its next regular session, unless a special session is called first.

Approximately 410 of the 580 employees at Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining facilities in Babbitt and Silver Bay were laid off in May when the iron ore mine and pellet plant idled amid a royalties dispute and as the use of scrap metal in electric arc furnaces reduced the need for its pellets.

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The federal appeals court ruling is harsher than an earlier Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission decision.
Cliffs first idled Northshore on May 1, resulting in the layoff of about 410 of the 580 employees who work at the open pit mine outside the small town of Babbitt and the giant pellet plant along the shore of Lake Superior in Silver Bay.
Northshore Mining pellet plant in Silver Bay and mine in Babbitt are still scheduled to idle May 1 and last until at least into the fall.
Like its Northshore Mining idling, the company said it's using more scrap and more electric-arc furnaces instead of traditional blast furnaces.
The company does not want to pay "absurdly high" royalty fees to Mesabi Trust and is using more scrap metal in its electric arc furnaces.
Cleveland-Cliffs pays the Mesabi Trust royalties based on the volume of its shipments, the price of taconite and the amount of taconite that was mined from land owned by the trust, namely the Peter Mitchell Mine in Babbitt.
The company will use the scrap metal to feed its electric arc furnaces.
The state agency said project is within expansions considered by its original 45-year-old review.

But now, after 26 weeks, the state unemployment benefits have expired, and it will be at least another four months until miners can return to work. Cliffs officials have said April is the earliest the plant could reopen .

State Sen.-elect Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, said he would introduce a bill in January to extend the benefits by another 26 weeks and it would be applied retroactively. Eligibility would be extended to people laid off from companies that provide goods and services to mines.

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Grant Hauschild.jpg
Grant Hauschild

Hauschild will represent Senate District 3, which includes Babbitt, Silver Bay and much of Northeastern Minnesota.

In July, state Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, called on legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz to hold a special session to extend the unemployment benefits, but one never materialized and it's unlikely to happen over the next month.

“The state Legislature failed to ensure that laid-off miners have the unemployment insurance benefits that they deserve,” Hauschild said in a news release Monday. “When the Senate convenes in January, one of my first actions will be to push for unemployment benefits for hardworking miners who’ve been laid off due to the idling of Northshore Mining.”

Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, plans to introduce a House companion to Hauschild's Senate bill, the release said.

Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich, the Republican candidate who lost to Hauschild in the Senate District 3 race, hopes the benefits are extended.

Andrea Zupancich
Andrea Zupancich

She told the News Tribune the feeling in town has been “somber” as benefits end.

“It’s a bad time for everyone … you’re starting to see more stuff for sale — like the toys and stuff — and people cutting back is definitely affecting the local businesses,” Zupancich said.

She added that there are added expenses this time of year — the holidays are coming up and homes need to be heated.

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She hopes legislators, especially from the Twin Cities metro, take the Iron Range seriously and understand the outsized impact a several hundred layoffs in the mining industry has on the region.

"It’s communities, it’s children, it’s schools” that are affected, she said.

Related Topics: SILVER BAYBABBITTCLEVELAND-CLIFFSMININGIRON RANGE
Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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