ST. PAUL -- As the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions aimed at controlling its spread drag on, Minnesota lawmakers are considering a bill to extend unemployment insurance benefits to those in the mining industry.

At a Thursday, July 9, hearing, state Rep. Julie Sandstede, D-Hibbing, said the Iron Range in northern Minnesota -- already in a vulnerable position after ongoing tariff wars -- has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. To limit the virus's spread and to compensate for dramatic dips in revenues, mining facilities have been forced to cut back on employees' hours and wages, or lay them off altogether, she said.

"We are in many ways no different than the rest of the state because everybody’s experiencing a downturn regardless of what (industry) you’re in," Sandstede said at Thursday's hearing. "The difference, however, is that on the Iron Range, we do not have the diversity that the rest of the state does."

Up north, she said, taconite mining, timber and tourism are Minnesotans' "bread and butter." And if miners are laid off, there just aren't enough other jobs open in the region for them to take.

"We have a disastrous trifecta right now. All of them (mining, timber and tourism) are down," she continued. "That means that people do not have another choice but to leave. And leave for what, where? Everybody’s struggling."

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If Sandstede's bill passes, laid-off ironworkers would be eligible for unemployment benefits through May 1, 2021 -- a maximum of 26 weeks of additional benefits, after exhausting other regular state and federal benefits.

According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, more than 843,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March. About 1,800 in the mining industry alone have been laid off during the pandemic, according to the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

Sandstede's bill has the support of the Ironing Mining Association of Minnesota, the State Building Trades Council and Ironworkers Local Union No. 512.