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Mining companies, unions adopt new work standards amidst COVID-19

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EYE ON MINING -- As Minnesotans continue to stay at home under the orders of Governor Tim Walz, mining employees continue to clock-in.

The governor deemed them, essential workers, due to the impact the industry has across the state and country.

Chris Johnson is the union president of USW Local 2705 representing more than 600 Hibbing Taconite employees.

He said ArcelorMittal, the company that runs Hibtac, is following CDC guidelines on workplace and workforce safety, but that doesn't mean his members aren't raising concerns.

Johnson said he's hearing mixed reactions of being happy to still be working and being concerned about the health of the employees.

One major obstacle the union is facing is getting paid leave for employees who are high risk or who have family members who are high risk.

Johnson said right now they don't have an option if they aren't comfortable going to work.

"The company isn't really seeing eye to eye with us on how we would handle it but we're trying to work on a case by case to see if there FMLA approved, or if there's anything else we can do. Unfortunately, until the government steps in and puts some protections in place for these people the company is not going to just willingly do it. So that's our fight right now."

Johnson said union leadership meets daily with Hibtac's General Manager and Human Resources Department to discuss solutions as the pandemic continues.

He added that management is doing its best to accommodate the union's requests.

We also heard from mining companies on how they are keeping employees who come into work safe while also keeping the products going out.

Cleveland-Cliffs operates a number of mines in northern Minnesota including United Taconite in Forbes and Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.

Pat Persico, Communications Director for Cliffs, said they've implemented preventative measures to ensure employees stay healthy.

That includes non-essential employees working remotely, workers continuing to wear safety and protective gear, and they now have a medical director on staff who is able to advise the management team as well as monitor COVID-19 on a daily basis.

Persico said these steps are in place to make sure employees stay healthy and stay working.

"We remain very committed to the safety of our employees and we will reassess the situation continually and adopt any additional measures that we might need to employ," said Persico. "Right now we are continuing to operate. We still have demand from our customers and they're receiving a product so right now we continue with our plan."

Cliffs did have to suspend the construction of its new HBI facility in Toledo Ohio due to the COVID-19 outbreak and rules put in place by Ohio's governor.

Persico said it did not have any impact on Northshore Mine which produces pellets for that facility.

There's no timeline on when it will get going again, but Cliffs does plan on finishing the project.

Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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