VIRGINIA — Iron Range mines and the United Steelworkers are collaborating on their preparations for COVID-19, including talks over leave time and how to address school closings for parents.

Mining companies last week took steps to limit potential exposure to COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus that has spread worldwide this winter with 54 confirmed cases in Minnesota as of Monday.

Those steps included asking workers to avoid large gatherings, cutting down on travel and limiting non-essential access to the plants by vendors and others.

“We have taken several measures to reduce risks to our workforce, including cancellation of all non-essential business travel, limiting outside visitors to our facilities, encouraging employees to avoid large gatherings and implementing the use of telephonic or video conferences to conduct business,” wrote Meghan Cox, a spokesperson for U.S. Steel, in an email to the Mesabi Daily News.

Similar guidelines were also issued by Cleveland-Cliffs. ArcelorMittal didn’t respond to a request for its protocol.

John Arbogast, representing the regional United Steelworkers District 11, said the companies issued individual protocols for handling employee sick time in the event they need to quarantine for the advised 14-day period.

Cliffs, which manages United Taconite in the cities of Eveleth and Forbes, told workers that the company will pay them during a 14-day quarantine with full benefits. If it lasts longer, then the sickness and accident benefits (SNA) negotiated in the USW contract will kick in.

ArcelorMittal, according to Arbogast, sent out a letter to workers saying the SNA benefits will go into effect on quarantine.

“We’re working with the companies,” Arbogast said, noting the Steelworkers are asking the companies to waive a one-week waiting period for SNA, noting the state of Minnesota waived its mandatory week wait on unemployment benefits.

U.S. Steel had not issued its leave time policy as of Monday afternoon, he added.

“We continue to monitor the situation and communicate that information regularly throughout our organization, including preventative tips,” Cox added in the email Friday. “Contingency planning within our organization remains ongoing and we will activate these plans as circumstances warrant.”

Union presidents at Local 6860 at United Taconite and Local 2660 at Keetac canceled their meetings scheduled for the end of the month.

Companies are meeting with union presidents at the mines twice daily, Arbogast said, discussing the looming school closures Wednesday and how single parents or parents that both work in the mines can address child care.

The sides are also talking over ways to address the situation when a confirmed case of COVID-19 is located within the mine’s workforce. Arbogast said the Steelworkers are moving forward as if a case will be located in their membership and among the issues being discussed is how to fill spots and keep operations running seamlessly.

“The companies are meeting with the presidents twice a day developing policy,” he said. “What are you going to do as a mining company when that happens? I don’t think they have that figured out yet.”


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