THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE, in a sparsely attended informal session on Thursday, approved legislation that would extend unemployment assistance for the 1,250 locked-out workers of National Grid or any other utility that locks out its employees.
Typically, only noncontroversial issues are taken up in informal sessions. But the Republicans in the House, who held the bill up on Tuesday, decided to let the Grid legislation go through on Thursday after Democrats added a couple of amendments to exempt municipally owned utilities and to sunset the legislation on January 1, 2023.
The Grid workers, who have been locked out of work without paychecks and health insurance since June, are expected to start running out of unemployment benefits in January. The legislation, crafted by the House Ways and Means Committee, would extend those benefits until the lockout ends.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a statement hailing passage of the legislation, which now goes to the Senate for action. “In addition to providing relief and security to these workers and their families, we built in protections for taxpayers and ratepayers – assuring that the cost of these benefits fall solely to the employer responsible for the lockout,” DeLeo said.
But DeLeo’s claim that the bill would assess the cost of the extended unemployment benefits on National Grid alone was difficult to verify.
Rep. Bradley Jones of North Reading, the Republican legislator who held up the bill on Tuesday, said he asked for more information on the legislation from the House Ways and Means Committee and was told the cost of providing the additional unemployment benefits would be borne by all electric and gas utilities in the state.
Jones said that’s partly the reason why he pushed for an amendment exempting municipally owned utilities from the reach of the bill. The bill also bars a utility from passing along the cost of the unemployment benefits to its ratepayers; Jones said municipally owned utilities don’t have the resources to pay that cost, which he estimated at about $800,000 a week in the National Grid situation.
Erin Liang, chief of staff and policy for the House Ways and Means Committee, couldn’t point to a specific section of the bill that requires the utility that locked-out its workers to pay the cost of the extended unemployment benefits. But she said all of the sections read together add up to that outcome.
A spokeswoman for National Grid issued a statement saying the assessments for extended unemployment benefits would have to be paid by all electric and gas utilities in the state.
The Grid spokeswoman said the company hopes progress can be made in reaching a resolution to the labor dispute at the next bargaining session on Friday. “We are aware of the toll this dispute has had on our employees and their families,” the company said. “That is why we remain resolved to reaching an agreement with the unions that returns them to work with increased wages, market-leading health insurance, job security, and other competitive benefits. We meet with the unions tomorrow and remain able to meet every day until we resolve this dispute – rendering unnecessary these proposed assessments on all electric and gas companies in the Commonwealth to finance an entirely new benefit fund.”
John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, the presidents of the two steelworkers locals locked out by National Grid, said they were grateful for DeLeo’s leadership to hold the utility accountable and looked forward to working with the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker to win final passage.
“National Grid has utterly failed to live up to its obligations as a public utility during this lockout, and its lack of urgency is wreaking havoc on residents, businesses, and communities across Massachusetts,” the two officials said. “The lockout has threatened public safety, hindered timely restoration of gas service in the Merrimack Valley, and prevented dozens of business owners and construction projects from safely getting the gas connections they need.”