The Massachusetts Senate is teeing up a bill for Thursday designed to extend by months potentially the unemployment benefits for 1,250 workers locked out by National Grid, marking another foray by the Legislature into the heated labor dispute.
But the legislation would differ from a bill the House passed this month, albeit with an admitted “error,” underlining a divide between the two chambers in how to respond to workers’ pleas for help.
The bill, according to Senate President Karen E. Spilka’s office, would extend unemployment insurance benefits to locked-out employees for up to 26 additional weeks, or until the lockout ended, through the existing unemployment system. The United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003, which represent employees locked out since June, have said many of their members will use up their unemployment benefits as early as Jan. 14.
Spilka said the Senate would take up a bill in “absence of an agreement between the two parties.” That seemed unlikely Wednesday night after union leaders released a statement criticizing the company, indicating the sides were still apart.
“We have considered a range of policy options, and believe the bill we put forward is practical, feasible, and able to be implemented quickly, so that these families incur no break in unemployment benefits,” Spilka said in a statement to the Globe.
“It is our hope that this action will provide some relief and peace of mind for those workers who want nothing more than to get back to work. We strongly encourage both parties to continue their negotiations and resolve this issue.”
The formal legislative session ended in July, so the Senate would have to pass the bill through an informal session, where the objection of any single member can block legislation. Governor Charlie Baker indicated to reporters Wednesday that he was open to Beacon Hill intervening in the dispute.
The bill, as described by Spilka’s office, would veer greatly from legislation passed by the House without debate in early December. The House bill would create a separate fund for “involuntarily” locked-out workers to tap once they exhaust their regular unemployment benefits, with the costs — including implementing the program, as well as the benefits — falling on the employer.
In the House bill, as written, those costs could also fall on other utilities, not just the one locking out employees. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has since said the language was a “drafting error,” and his aides have said the intent was to make the utility locking out its employees responsible. National Grid has criticized the House bill as “punitive.”
The Senate bill would not create a separate fund but instead pay out benefits through the existing taxpayer-funded system.
National Grid has said that its first offer included a 14.5 percent pay raise over four years and a no-layoff guarantee after five years of service. The union, meanwhile, has resisted changes such as the addition of a base health care plan with deductibles and coinsurance, and replacing traditional pensions with a 401(k)-type plan for new hires.
John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, presidents of United Steel Workers Locals 12012 and 12003, said in a statement Wednesday they would welcome help from the Senate.
“We remain hopeful that the Senate on Thursday will pass legislation that offers much needed protections for our workers and safeguards a critical economic lifeline during this very difficult time,” their statement said.