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Jobless benefits extended for some Range workers

Hundreds of Iron Range steelworkers laid off this year will get extended unemployment benefits after federal officials lobbied for additional relief for workers in the region hard-hit by slumping commodity prices.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Friday stretched out job-training and other services to workers at the idled Mesabi Nugget plant, in Hoyt Lakes and Chisholm, for up to 130 weeks. Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development urged the move with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, all Democrats from the state.

“This is very good news for Range families who need immediate help to make it through this downturn. They need and deserve it,” Nolan said in a statement. “But more than that, they want to work. They want their jobs back.”

Roughly 200 Mesabi Nugget workers learned in May that the plant, majority owned by Indiana-based Steel Dynamics Inc., would stay offline for at least two years, prompting lawmakers to request relief. The iron ore industry is battling a worldwide supply glut and hotly contested foreign steel trade biting deep into U.S. producers’ bottom lines.

In all, the closures of several Iron Range steel operations in recent months left more than 1,000 workers jobless at least temporarily. Some plant owners have yet to say how long they expect work stoppages to last, guidance that could spur additional calls for extended benefits.

A murky outlook for Minnesota’s steel has stoked tensions between unions and plant operators, who for the most part haven’t solidified plans to restart operations – though at least one facility is back in business.

Primarily, steel companies have said reopening plants hinges on market conditions and consumer demand. But industry watchers say it could be a while before the price of iron ore, a key steel ingredient, rebounds enough for companies to ramp up production in a meaningful way.

Since iron ore prices hit decade-low marks earlier this year, sinking below $50 per metric ton, they’ve seen a modest uptick, now hovering around $55 per metric ton. Under better conditions, Minnesota produced 40 million tons of high-grade iron ore, about three-quarters of the nation’s total output, according to state figures.

United States Steel Corp., which also laid off hundreds of Minnesota workers this year, and others have pinned blame in part on foreign competitors setting their prices for stateside buyers below the cost of production – a practice known as “dumping” that has erupted into a lightning rod political issue.

Minnesota’s congressional delegation has pushed for reforms that would shore up the state’s iron ore industry through stricter anti-dumping standards at the federal level.

“Over the long term we need to put a stop to bad trade agreements and a broken trade enforcement process that has allowed the dumping of hundreds of millions of tons of low grade foreign government subsided steel into the U.S. marketplace – depressing prices and driving these terrible job losses on the Range,” Nolan said.

In the meantime, efforts to buoy Iron Range workers and their families center on training programs – mostly administered by DEED – designed to position laid-off workers for other jobs, including in other industries.

The agency said last week it launched a joint effort with the Northeast Minnesota Office of Jobs and Training to broaden career planning, job-search and other training efforts.

“Extended unemployment benefits will help these workers and their families get through this very difficult time,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement.

Policymakers petitioned for extended benefits in June, the month after Steel Dynamics announced it would halt production at Mesabi Nugget until at least 2017.

About Karlee Weinmann

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