REGIONAL- Prolonged layoffs and the end of unemployment benefits for idled Northshore Mining workers in Babbitt and Silver Bay signal an uncertain future as two area legislators vow to press forward …
REGIONAL- Prolonged layoffs and the end of unemployment benefits for idled Northshore Mining workers in Babbitt and Silver Bay signal an uncertain future as two area legislators vow to press forward with relief as soon as the 2023 legislative session gets underway next month.
Last May, parent company Cleveland-Cliffs suspended operations at the Babbitt mine and shifted DR-grade taconite pellet production from Silver Bay to its Minorca facility in Virginia, idling that facility as well and resulting in more than 400 layoffs. Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves said the moves were due to changes in the company’s needs for DR-grade pellets and an ongoing dispute with the Mesabi Trust over royalty payments on ore extracted from Babbitt. In late July, Goncalves told investors that Northshore operations would be idled at least until April 2023.
State Rep. Rob Ecklund responded in August with a bill for a possible special legislative session to consider that would have extended unemployment benefits for the affected workers by 26 weeks. That would have effectively covering the period between the end of their regular UI benefits and a possible recall to work in April.
But no such session was forthcoming, and now the benefits are running out.
Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich said signs of belt tightening are evident as one drives through town.
“You see four-wheelers, side-by-sides, boats, things like that put up for sale,” she said. “I see a couple new houses up on the market with people finding new jobs. It’s just very hard. It’s disheartening, and lots of rumors are flying around.”
On Monday, newly elected District 3 state Sen. Grant Hauschild, a Hermantown DFLer, announced his support of the miners in a press release Monday, decrying the lack of a special legislative session where Ecklund’s bill could have been enacted and provided uninterrupted UI coverage for them.
“I thought it was important to announce this to signal to these workers that look, somebody’s in your corner, and I’m ready to introduce this legislation immediately upon taking my seat,” Hauschild told the Timberjay on Tuesday.
Hauschild said that his bill and a companion bill to be introduced in the House by District 7B Representative Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, will be modeled directly on Ecklund’s bill and will ask for an additional 26 weeks of UI, retroactive to the date at which the original benefits ceased. Those who work for firms providing goods or services to the iron ore mining industry and lost their jobs because of the idling would also be eligible. The extended benefits wouldn’t be used to determine the future unemployment tax rate for a business, and workers eligible for Trade Readjustment Allowance assistance benefits wouldn’t be eligible.
“We owe it to these workers and their families to help with this hardship,” Lislegard said. “Let’s do the right thing for the people of northern Minnesota.”
Republican Roger Skraba, awaiting the results of a recount for the Senate District 3 race to confirm his election, also expressed his support for Hauschild’s bill.
“Whatever Grant and I need to do, I will stand together with him 100 percent,” Skraba said. “It’s important.”
Hauschild said he hasn’t talked directly with any of the affected workers but has received expressions of their concerns relayed to him through official legislative channels.
“I also met with Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves and talked to him about this issue as well and expressed interest in getting this mine and plant up and running again,” Hauschild said. “I’m hopeful that will happen, and in the meantime let’s provide the support to the workers.”
Hauschild said he’s also been in contact with Zupancich, who he defeated in the Nov. 8 election for the Senate seat.
“Andrea and I talked after the election and she expressed concerns about the Iron Range,” Hauschild said. “I did not call her explicitly about this issue, but we talked, and we both agreed to have an open line of communication about concerns regarding the Iron Range. She has been involved there for so long and I would be happy to take her advice as an Iron Range mayor regarding issues such as this.”
Zupancich expressed confidence that the Legislature will act to extend benefits, but she was also clear that there are pressing issues on the Iron Range that go beyond the present crisis.
“I think this may be a precursor of what’s to come,” she said. “I get that feeling because of different meetings I’ve attended and discussions that are being held. We need a very strong backbone for the Iron Range right now. In order for the economy to keep going up here, actually to strengthen it back up again, we need sustainable jobs of any type, whether it’s manufacturing or mining. We need more than tourism jobs. We need more than minimum wage jobs to keep this area going.”
And as is typically the case in tight-knit small communities, Zupancich said there are people reaching out to help.
“There are people who have asked if we know of any families that are in need,” she said. “I have not heard of any, but if anyone is of need, please just give me a call. It will be confidential, but I could probably put them in touch with some people who are looking to help.”
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