By Katie Lannan, STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 4, 2018 (State House News Service) — A bill that would create an unemployment benefits program for locked-out workers began moving in the House on Tuesday, the same day that National Grid gas workers unable to work since June plan to visit Beacon Hill for a hearing.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday morning gave its members until 10:15 a.m. to vote on its version of a Rep. Antonio Cabral bill (H 3133) providing protections for locked-out workers.

Under the House Ways and Means bill, the state labor and workforce development secretary would be charged with establishing “a benefit program for any individual who is involuntarily unemployed during the period of the negotiation of a collective bargaining contract because of an employer’s lockout.”

The bill does not specifically mention National Grid, instead calling for a generalized program.

Members of United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003, who have been locked out since June amid stalled contract negotiations with National Grid, plan to testify at a 1 p.m. Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee hearing. The hearing is on a separate bill, filed in July by Rep. James O’Day, that would force the company to extend health insurance benefits to locked out gas workers during the labor dispute.

According to the union, many gas workers will exhaust their unemployment benefits “as early as January 14, 2018.”

The House plans to meet in an 11 a.m. session.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a lengthy statement Tuesday morning excoriating National Grid.

“More than a thousand hardworking individuals – and their families – are in economic peril because of a wholly avoidable business decision by a public utility. This public utility has chosen to lockout its employees as a negotiation tactic, the cost of which is being subsidized by taxpayers and the Commonwealth’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” DeLeo said “Such reckless behavior by any large employer would be appalling, but it is even more egregious when undertaken by a public utility that has been granted a territorial monopoly by the Commonwealth. When we grant a public utility, we expect that companies bear implicit responsibilities because of the special status conferred upon them.

“We are quickly approaching the runout date for unemployment benefits for locked out employees. These individuals, who have already been living off of reduced income, will be left with no source of income. This is unconscionable. The Commonwealth cannot sit idly by while a large, international conglomerate volitionally locks out employees in a transparent effort to enhance its leverage in a negotiation, while passing the on the cost for this misguided strategy to the taxpayers and ratepayers of the Commonwealth.”

According to DeLeo’s office, any eligible individual whose unemployment benefits have been exhausted will be eligible for the benefits payable from the proposed program “at the same weekly benefit rate as provided for under our current unemployment law and until the resolution of the lockout.”

Under the bill, all program costs will be assessed on the employer who has locked out their employees, and the bill precludes an employer from passing on the costs of the program to ratepayers.

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