NWA fights jobless benefits

Steve Miller lost his job with Northwest Airlines after his union went on strike in August. Now he lives on unemployment benefits of $429 per week while he looks for another job.

But Northwest is fighting an unemployment law judge's decision that qualified Miller and about 600 custodians and cleaners in Minnesota for the aid. Earlier this month, the carrier appealed the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

If Northwest prevails, the workers who have received unemployment payments will have to pay the money back.

"How can we give it back?" said Miller, who lives near Hastings and had worked at Northwest for nearly 16 years. "That is what is sustaining us."

Shortly after the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Associated went on strike at 11:01 p.m. Aug. 19, Miller's job, and those of about 1,100 other cleaners and custodian jobs at Northwest, were outsourced.

Northwest's appeal would end if AMFA members ratify a proposed agreement announced Monday. If the case goes forward, no decision is expected until next summer.

Lee Nelson, an attorney for the state's unemployment insurance division, said that the workers would have to repay the benefits to the state if Northwest prevails in its appeal.

That's tough for workers to swallow.

"They are slapping our face, over and over again," said Mitch Korf, 40, of Cottage Grove. Korf earned about $21 per hour when he lost his job cleaning and de-icing Northwest planes and driving a truck that provided planes with water and lavatory service.

Korf, who worked at Northwest for 16 years, collected four weeks of unemployment pay that he said he used to pay his mortgage. Now he's working as a custodian for the state of Minnesota earning about half the pay he made at Northwest.

"I had 16 years in there and then I was out the door, just like that," he said of Northwest. "And now they want to take away any money I can use to support myself."

In September an unemployment law judge decided that striking custodians and cleaners in Minnesota are entitled to unemployment pay because the wage cuts imposed by Northwest were so severe it forced them to walk off the job. They were among the lowest paid workers in the union, earning between $8.78 and $21.11 per hour. After the imposed pay cuts, they would have been making $6.49 to $15.77 per hour.

The judge found that the new rates in effect constituted a lockout. The judge didn't address the fact that their jobs were eliminated. "It seems to me to be hypocritical for the company to pursue an appeal when they know these jobs are gone anyway," said Nick Granath, an attorney for the cleaners, custodians and mechanics. He called the move "unusually vindictive."

In a separate decision, the judge found that the proposed wage cuts were not so onerous for higher-paid union mechanics, making them ineligible for unemployment wages. The mechanics have appealed that decision.

Northwest declined to elaborate on the reason for its appeal. Companies have a financial stake in who receives unemployment benefits. They pay unemployment taxes into a state fund at a rate based on the amount of money their former employees collect. The higher that amount, the higher the rate paid by the company.

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