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Lawmaker crafts bill to extend unemployment benefits for Iron Range miners

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HIBBING, MN -- More than 1,500 miners on the Iron Range have been out of work since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the steel industry.

As unemployment benefits dwindle, and deadlines inch near, there's fear from miners who don't know if or when they'll be clocking in again.

Now, one area lawmaker is stepping up to ensure those workers have something to fall back on, should they need it.

"Often times steelworkers are the first ones hit and the last ones to come back online," said DFL Rep. Julie Sandstede, who represents District 6A.

That has been the trend on the boom and bust roller coaster ride that is the mining industry.

To soften the blow, Rep. Sandstede is crafting a bill to extend unemployment benefits to miners who don't get called back to work.

"We are hoping the bill is not going to be necessary, that is my hope, but it's really a safety net in the event that the industry isn't back online or at capacity as they may be predicting."

The bill was inspired by employees at Keetac, a U.S. Steel plant in Keewatin that has been idled indefinitely.

"The reaction was kinda of harsh," said Dan Pierce, United Steelworkers Local 2660 president representing Keetac union members.

"The word indefinite is kind of scary because we don't know when or if we're going to get called back."

Pierce has worked at Keetac for more than 20 years.

He said the ups and downs are nothing new to his union, but this time around feels different.

"The mine was expanding, things were booming and all of a sudden COVID-19. Things started slowing down a little bit and then all of a sudden everything just came to a full stop."

That left more than 350 Keetac miners out of work, with no idea when they could return.

"When you're trying to pay a mortgage and put food on the table, and you have no absolute, no certainty, a bill like this helps; and it also hopefully retains people from leaving the community," said Sandstede.

The Representative's bill would extend unemployment benefits 26 weeks beyond what is already in place. That is something Pierce said would bring comfort an relief to his union members.

"As of right now I'm in communication with the company just about every week and that's one of the questions I ask, is if they see anything on the horizon for Keetac to restart or a timelines, or anything like that," said Pierce. "As of right now, they don't have a timeline on when they're going to start Keetac."

While the fear of the unknown weighs on the minds of many, Pierce said having support from local lawmakers is critical now more than ever.

"It's very important to have your local legislator step up to the plate and go the extra mile. That's why we vote the way that we do. To have people there if we need them to take these big challenges on."

Representative Sandstede's bill was sitting in the jobs committee but since the special session at the Minnesota legisulature ended overnight, technically the bill is now dead.

But Sandstede told us Tuesday morning she is having the bill re-jacketed and it will be ready for introduction at the next session, should it be needed.

Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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