The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses and left people without jobs across the state. Extensions for unemployment insurance benefits have helped families make ends meet, but additional extensions may be needed.
The Iron Range has been hit particularly hard because it doesn’t have the same economic diversity as other regions, Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) told the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division during an informational hearing Thursday.
She sponsors a yet-to-be-introduced bill that would extend unemployment insurance benefits for Iron Range employees – including mine workers and those supplying goods and services to the mining industry – laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Extensions would be limited to a maximum of 26 additional weeks, prior to May 1, 2021. The proposed legislation is based off of a similar extension made in 2015, said Jim Hegman, the state’s unemployment insurance director.
Originally introduced during the June special session, the bill did not receive a hearing. Sandstede wants to begin discussions in anticipation of a second special session, in case the Legislature needed to move the bill quickly.
Sandstede urged the division to think of the bill as a “safety net” that would kick in after other state and federal unemployment benefits were exhausted, if the mining industry has not begun to recover, and people haven’t been able to resume work.
“Once the unemployment insurance runs out, they don’t have many choices,” said John Arbogast, representing United Steelworkers. “They’re going to have to leave the area, go elsewhere to find jobs, and that’ll decimate … the community.”
Closures related to the pandemic have had a “devastating” impact on all three of the Iron Range’s main industries – mining, timber, and tourism – which, in turn, impact the rest of the area’s economy in a “simultaneous tailspin,” Sandstede said.
When there’s an economic downturn, the logistical challenges of resuming mining operations often mean the industry is likely to recover later than other economic sectors, said Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls).
Some members of the division, including Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) and Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove), questioned why people employed in this specific industry, in this specific region, should receive an extension of benefits while others do not.
“Right now, the entire economy has been shut down. Not just this particular industry,” Robbins said.
Moran said that while, under normal circumstances, the Twin Cities metropolitan area may have a broader range of jobs available than Greater Minnesota, the pandemic has limited opportunities, and an extension should be considered for the entire state.
Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley) suggested that all of Greater Minnesota be considered for inclusion.