The DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate moved swiftly to pass its second bill Thursday, a $10 million extension of unemployment benefits for roughly 400 miners laid off from Cleveland-Cliffs Northshore Mining operations last May.
Sponsored by freshman Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, the bill passed 56-10 after the DFL majority fended off a GOP attempt to limit the pool of eligible recipients.
Hauschild encouraged members to imagine that "you shower after work and not before" as the miners do and that "you're proud of your work and through no fault of your own, you're unemployed."
The mine and pellet plant, where workers earn an average of $120,000, have been idled since last May in a dispute over royalty fees with Mesabi Trust. The bill, which is expected to be heard in a House committee next week, would extend unemployment benefits by 26 weeks for miners laid off from last April through March 4, 2023.
For many miners, unemployment benefits ran out as winter was coming and the holidays approached. The bill gives them "some relief, some hope to stay in their communities and not leave," Hauschild said. "In our rural communities on the Iron Range, there's not a lot of opportunities."
Cleveland-Cliffs, the mine owner, has indicated the mine could resume operations in April. "Let's get them to that date when the mine is possibly going to reopen," Hauschild said.
On the eve of the vote, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted her support, saying the Legislature "has a chance to give a lifeline to these workers" and "relief can't come fast enough."
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, sought to amend the bill, saying it breaks with precedent by helping miners who have yet to be laid off. "Someone could qualify if they're laid off two months from now," Pratt said. "We have never before conferred extended benefits on someone who hasn't been laid off yet."
Hauschild said different workers were laid off at different dates in a "fluid situation" and the bill was designed to provide the "utmost fluidity" so miners get the coverage they deserve.
Pratt's amendment failed 38-29 on a mostly party-line vote.
After the amendment failed, some Republicans spoke for the bill's passage. Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, described the situation as a "couple billionaires fighting with each other" to the detriment of the miners. "We are doing the right thing to help these miners out," he said, noting the steel industry's historical importance to Minnesota and the world.
Another Iron Range freshman, Sen. Rob Farnsworth, R-Hibbing, noted that Babbitt and Silver Bay have a combined population of about 3,000 so at least 10% of the population is out of work.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, used the opportunity to push for easing the state permitting and regulatory requirements process so other mines could open. "This is a Band-Aid," he said.
After passage, Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, was waiting outside the Senate chamber to congratulate Hauschild. Lislegard said he expects the bill to continue moving through House committees next week. "Let's focus on helping people instead of making political points," he said. "We have people that are hurting."