The state of Minnesota has paid almost $9 million to about 1,600 Northwest Airlines mechanics who went on strike 13 months ago.
Lee Nelson, an attorney with the state's unemployment insurance program, said Friday that about 500 mechanics received the maximum benefit of $13,390.
The checks were cut after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last week that the mechanics were effectively locked out of their jobs by Northwest and deserved the unemployment benefits. The airline used replacement workers to keep flying after the August 2005 strike.
The state normally does not pay unemployment benefits to striking workers. However, members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) recently got the benefits because the Court of Appeals determined that the 25 percent pay cuts that Northwest proposed for its mechanics created a "constructive lockout."
The court's decision this month overturned a decision last October by Richard Croft, an unemployment law judge, who denied unemployment benefits for striking mechanics. Officially, the dispute between the union and the airline continues, although Northwest's mechanic workforce is now composed of replacements as well as Northwest mechanics who crossed AMFA picket lines or were laid off before the strike.
Joe Samargia, a former commissioner of the state's Department of Jobs and Training, said Friday that he is upset because the state should be doing more to help the striking mechanics get all of their unemployment benefits.
This month, some mechanics received only partial benefit payments because they stopped contacting the state during the past year and failed to request benefits.
Minnesota law requires people to contact the state Department of Employment and Economic Development every two weeks to request benefits and answer questions about whether they have part-time jobs and are searching for work.
"These people have lost their houses, they have lost everything financially and they should receive benefits, even though it is late," said Samargia, a former Teamsters business agent and Perpich administration commissioner.
But Nelson, the department's attorney, said Minnesota law requires the department to require the mechanics to show "good cause" as to why they didn't contact the state on a regular basis to file for benefits.
People stop filing "continued requests" for benefits all the time when they get jobs or other circumstances change, Nelson said.
"We can't just say that for AMFA members that somehow we will make special rules for them," Nelson said.
Nick Granath, an AMFA attorney, said Friday that the partial benefits issue "isn't something we can sue the department over." But he said he has urged Nelson to look at the facts of the situation involving AMFA members, so that scores of eligible mechanics who are missing out on some of their benefits aren't forced to appear before unemployment law judges to wage appeals.
Nelson pointed to Page 6 of the unemployment benefits handbook and noted that it requires people to request benefits every two weeks, even if their eligibility is being appealed.
AMFA's Granath said he thinks there were confusing statements made to some AMFA members by the department, so he believes there will be a basis for allowing hundreds of mechanics to secure additional unemployment benefits.
Mechanics who went on strike against Northwest Airlines last year are eligible for unemployment benefits as long as they meet program requirements, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Unemployment benefits are under pressure
If Northwest prevails, the workers who have received unemployment payments will have to pay the money back.
Wage cuts Northwest Airlines imposed on its mechanics were not so unreasonable that the workers were forced off the job, an unemployment law judge decided.