Striking Northwest Airlines custodians and cleaners in Minnesota are entitled to unemployment pay after a judge ruled Friday that wage cuts imposed by the airline were so severe it forced them to walk off the job.
The decision issued Friday by Richard E. Croft, a state unemployment law judge, affects an estimated 700 employees who work for the air carrier in Minnesota. They might be able to receive up to six months of unemployment pay.
About 4,400 cleaners, custodians and mechanics Â— members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association Â— went on strike against Northwest on Aug. 19 after failing to reach a contract deal with the airline. A separate decision affecting about 1,500 striking mechanics in the state is expected later this week.
Cleaners and custodians are among the lowest paid in the union. Northwest also has earmarked their jobs for elimination under a plan for third-party vendors to step in permanently.
Cleaners and custodians were earning between $8.78 and $21.11 per hour. After the imposed pay cuts, they would have been making $6.49 to $15.77 an hour.
"The cuts to these workers were very significant," Croft wrote. "The cuts had a harsher impact on them than a 25 percent wage cut would have on a worker with substantially higher earnings."
The judge found that the new rates in effect constituted a lockout.
In labor disputes, a lockout typically means the employer actually locks workers out of the workplace and replaces them. In this case, the mechanics and cleaners went on strike after mediated talks failed.
"Even if there was no formal lockout, it was a constructive lockout because the employer imposed unreasonable terms on the workers," said Nicholas Granath, a Minneapolis attorney representing the union members.
Scott Tennant, a spokesman for Northwest, which recently has filed for bankruptcy, declined to comment, saying the company had not yet received the full text of the decision.
Typically, striking workers are not eligible for unemployment. However, a provision of state law allows workers to receive benefits if they leave their jobs because they had no choice.
Northwest lawyers had argued that it did not impose the pay and benefits cuts on the workers; the union members were not allowed to vote on the airline's final offer, according to Croft's decision.
People receiving unemployment benefits in Minnesota typically get half their previous weekly salary, up to a pretax cap of $515 a week, for as many as six months. Unemployment benefits are paid from state funds. Employers such as Northwest pay unemployment insurance taxes, which go into the fund.
For a senior Northwest cleaner earning about $41,800 per year, that weekly benefit would amount to about $402. A cleaner at the bottom of the pay scale making about $19,700 before the new terms were imposed would get $190 a week.
Altogether, there are 2,200 AMFA members in Minnesota. Union officials instructed all members in Minnesota to file jobless claims in August when the union went on strike. Most did.
Julie Forster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5189.
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