FARGO — U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said in Fargo Thursday, March 21, that small business owners in North Dakota, as well as farmers and ranchers, now have an opportunity to band together to form association health plans as a way to secure health insurance coverage.

Acosta, who made several stops in North Dakota at the invitation of Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said association health plans fell out of favor after passage of the Affordable Care Act.

He added, however, that they have once again become an option after President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Labor Department to re-examine such plans and the Department of Labor subsequently issued a rule that allows them again.

"Small businesses across North Dakota are saying, 'How can we get insurance for our employees?''' Acosta said, adding that in states like Nevada and Nebraska new association health plans have reduced insurance premiums for their members by 25 percent and more.

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Acosta also talked about the labor shortage that the state and nation has been dealing with. Nationally, about 7.2 million jobs are going unfilled while North Dakota has about 30,000 open positions, according to Acosta, who said one way to address the issue would be to focus on finding ways to train and assist people to land jobs who are leaving prison, or fighting opioid addiction.

He said nationally nearly one in three males ages 24 to 54 who are not working have an opioid addiction.

"How do we work to reduce that addiction so those individuals can reengage in the workforce?" Acosta said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., left, and U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta listen to a North Dakota Farm Bureau official during a round-table event in Fargo on Thursday, March 21. Dave Olson/The Forum
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., left, and U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta listen to a North Dakota Farm Bureau official during a round-table event in Fargo on Thursday, March 21. Dave Olson/The Forum

In response to the Fargo visit by Acosta, several representatives of unionized labor issued statements noting their organizations had been denied a place at the table.

"It's a shame that Sen. Cramer would bring the U.S. Department of Labor secretary to North Dakota to discuss labor issues, and labor was not invited," said one statement that was signed by several union leaders, including officials with the North Dakota AFL-CIO; the Northern Valley Labor Council; the Northern Plains United Labor Council; the Missouri Slope Labor Council; the Northern Chapter of the Missouri Slope Labor Council; and the United Steelworkers Local 560.

William Wilkinson, president of United Steelworkers Local 560, also issued his own statement, which read:

"It's truly disappointing that I was not allowed by Sen. Cramer to attend the round table with the US Secretary of Labor. United Steelworkers Local 560, our union, has been proudly building Bobcats for almost fifty years.

"It's sad that the working people that build one of North Dakota's most well-known products are shut out of a meeting with the Secretary of Labor," Wilkinson said in the statement.

Cramer's office declined to respond to statements from specific union representatives, but said unions were represented at Thursday events attended by Acosta, including North Dakota Building Trades Union President Jason Ehlert and Ed Christian, local chapter director of the National Electrical Contractors Association, which helps negotiate labor agreements with their local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions.