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During Christmas Eve sessions, the House and Senate on Monday enacted and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill extending unemployment benefits to workers locked out by their employers and facing the exhaustion of benefits.
The bill, a response to National Grid's lockout of 1,250 natural gas workers, which began in June, calls for benefits to be extended for 26 weeks or until a lockout has ended.
Under the bill, extended benefits costs would be absorbed by all employers who pay into the unemployment insurance system.
Unions representing the locked out Grid workers have urged Baker to sign the bill before Christmas, although benefits are not due to run out until mid-January. Locked out workers gathered outside Baker's office Monday afternoon.
"Today's the perfect day to sign it," Joe Kirylo, president of United Steelworkers Local 12003, told the News Service while hanging around outside Baker's office at 12:20 p.m. "It would be better than the best gift for these people."
Kirylo said the locked out workers are under "extreme pressure" because they were stripped of their health insurance by National Grid and also face winter home heating bills while facing the loss of unemployment benefits.
Asked about Baker's possible approval of the bill, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Monday he was "hopeful."
"I am hopeful but I understand that the governor needs to look at it carefully because it is an important and sensitive piece of legislation," Tarr told the News Service after Monday's session. "And I think the most important thing is to have it in place prior to the expiration of benefits which doesn't happen, in my understanding, until January. So it certainly would be nice to have it done today but it's not imperative. But I hope ultimately it will get signed."
Lawmakers have suggested Baker is amenable to the bill since his administration played a role in helping write the bill's final language on Friday.
National Grid and two unions that have refused to accept contracts accepted by other utility workers have remained at a contract impasse for months. Their next negotiating session is planned for Wednesday and both sides issued a joint statement on Friday night saying it was their "shared intent" to reach an agreement by Friday, Dec. 28.
Baker last Wednesday said he has been "back and forth with the Legislature on this quite a bit," and that whatever legislation comes out of the process "needs to be something that can be implemented, can work, and can stand up within the framework of state and federal law, which is complicated in this space." He said the state stepping into a labor dispute would be "an unusual precedent," but said National Grid has a responsibility, under its state-issued franchise, to serve its customers in exchange for the rate of return the multi-national utility company is allowed to make.
"And I don't think it would be fair, given all of those facts, for us to not take into consideration those 1,200 locked out individuals and their families, and to work to try to make sure that they don't end up on the wrong end of this dispute," Baker said last week. "We are not telling people what to do, but if they don't fix this, and resolve this, then we're gonna make sure we come up with some means or mechanism that makes it possible for those folks to continue to be able to pay their bills."
Union officials said Baker, who did not release a public schedule for Monday, was seen in his office on Monday.
After unsuccessfully seeking a meeting with Baker, Kirylo, union official John Buonopane and locked out workers left the State House at around 12:35 p.m.
In a statement to the News Service, Baker spokesman Brendan Moss said, "The Baker-Polito Administration will now carefully review the legislation and looks forward to the union and the company reaching a compromise to end the lockout this week."
The House on Monday also agreed to a Senate amendment to a piece of the fiscal 2019 budget that Gov. Baker had returned with an amendment, an outside section that deals with the use of discount vouchers for prescription drugs.
The House plans to meet again on Wednesday at 11 a.m., while the Senate is out until Thursday at 11 a.m.
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