State lawmakers reached an agreement Friday on legislation that would potentially extend unemployment benefits by months to 1,250 workers locked out by National Grid, capping weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating in the Legislature.
In a sparsely attended informal session, the House agreed to a Senate version of the bill despite reservations from House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who warned it could affect unrelated businesses “by no fault of their own” who pay into the state’s unemployment system.
The move means the legislation could reach Governor Charlie Baker’s desk as early as Monday, as lawmakers scramble to finish it before Christmas. The Republican has signaled support for legislation that could ensure workers are “able to pay their bills” amid the prolonged labor dispute.
The Senate bill, passed this week, would extend unemployment insurance benefits to locked-out employees for up to 26 additional weeks, or until a lockout ends, through the existing unemployment system.
Union officials have cheered the legislation as a “vital economic lifeline” for their workers, but it has received a cold response from National Grid, who warned it could have wide-ranging effects on the “balance of collective bargaining” for all employers with unionized workers.
The Senate proposal stood in contrast to a different House bill, passed in early December, that sought to create a separate fund for workers to tap once they exhaust their regular unemployment benefits. The intent, according to DeLeo, was to pin the costs — including implementing the new program as well as the benefits — on the company locking out its employees. But under the House bill as written, the costs could have also fallen on other utilities, and DeLeo later admitted the language was a “drafting error.”
“Since day one, the House’s goal has been to provide relief to the National Grid employees who are locked out,” DeLeo said in a statement Friday. “Therefore, the House will concur with the Senate’s amendment today despite concerns that it unduly impacts businesses which — by no fault of their own — will have to subsidize the cost of another company’s strategic decision and that those costs can be passed along to taxpayers.”
DeLeo indicated the House could pursue more legislation in the next two-year session that starts Jan. 4 to “ensure that our social safety net is not being leveraged as part of a private company’s negotiation strategy.”
Gas workers have flooded the House and Senate at times, and Friday, a group waited outside the House chamber for most of the day, hoping for movement on the legislation. 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.
Facing that ticking clock — and expiring legislative session in January — House officials made the decision to agree to the Senate version after discussions with the Baker administration. Lizzy Guyton, a Baker spokeswoman, said Friday that the administration has continued to work with lawmakers on the bill, but declined further comment.
Senate president Karen E. Spilka said she was pleased the House agreed with the Senate version, and said she looks “forward to putting this bill on the governor’s desk on Monday.”
Reach Matt Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org.