New York law speeds U/C benefits to strikers

Unionized New Yorkers have a new law on their side. It makes striking or locked-out workers immediately eligible for unemployment insurance if their company hires replacement workers. Previously, such workers had to wait seven weeks before eligibility, as workers who are not replaced still do.

"The law is essentially good for the workers," said Leo Rosales, spokesman for the state Department of Labor. "They can put food on their table while they're on strike."

Labor organizations have long wanted to eliminate the seven-week wait, saying management has had the upper hand in contract negotiations because workers feared the financial pain a strike would bring. Joe Fox, president of the Capital District Area Labor Federation, said the new law "is a great step forward for every working man and woman in New York who faces negotiations."

The Business Council of New York State Inc. is far less pleased.

Tom Minnick, who studies labor law for the Albany-based group, cited the change as more evidence that New York is unfriendly to business -- especially because New York and Rhode Island are the only states allowing striking workers to receive unemployment insurance, he said.

And the law ultimately could lead to more strikes, he said, because it disrupts the balance that previously guided union-management negotiations.

"The whole point is that both sides sacrifice during a strike," Minnick said. "That's what keeps people talking and gets them to the point of compromise."

Labor compromise continues to be elusive at WNYT/Channel 13 -- the NBC affiliate in Albany.

Workers at the station have been working without a contract since the start of the month -- and could be among the first workers affected by the new law.

The employees have already authorized a strike but have not gone out.

Bill Lambdin, union head at the station, said the new law strengthens the hand of Local 21 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, especially as WNYT would almost assuredly replace striking workers.

Lambdin stopped short of saying the law would make his workers more likely to strike, but said "it certainly doesn't make it less likely."

Unemployment insurance typically provides about 50 percent of a worker's salary, capping the amount received at $405 weekly.

But most unions are also prepared to help striking workers financially -- and for many workers, the union payments could combine with unemployment payments to dull the financial pain of a walkout or lockout.

"Financially, it would not be all that traumatic for us to be on strike," Lambdin said.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed the bill in August, but apparently did so with reservations.

In a memo that accompanied the signing, the governor suggested the scope of the law should be limited to "cases where the employer hires a permanent replacement for the employee that applies for benefits" and should not apply when replacement workers are hired temporarily.

Spitzer's memo said he had agreement from leaders in the Senate and Assembly that the law eventually would be amended.

The Department of Labor's Rosales said that until that happens, all striking workers replaced by their employers will be eligible for unemployment insurance


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