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Last updated: Sun. Jul. 13, 2014 - 09:37 am EDT

Time running out on job assistance

Federal program aids workers hurt by trade agreements

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At a glance

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program helps workers who have lost jobs as a result of U.S. trade policies. Groups of multiple workers file petitions, which are reviewed by federal officials. Some TAA facts from fiscal 2012 include:

•1,439 petitions were filed by workers requesting TAA benefits

•85 percent of the requests were certified as eligible by the Labor Department

•81,510 total workers were covered by the certifications

•$575 million was allocated to pay for training

•$854 million was the total budgeted for both training and TAA administration by the states

•79 percent of TAA recipients who received a credential during the year found a job after leaving the program

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

The clock is ticking on a federal program that helps people rebuild their lives after trade-related business decisions rob them of jobs.

Unless Congress acts, funding for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program will end Dec. 31. If that happens, tens of thousands of workers could be left in the lurch, unable to pay their bills and for the training that could lead to a new job.

TAA assistance was promised to workers hurt by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Implemented Jan. 1, 1994, NAFTA eliminated most tariffs on trade among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Supporters believed it would create 1 million jobs within five years.

The TAA program was created as a safety net for factory workers and others who came out on the losing end of allowing Mexican and Canadian products to flow freely across the borders.

Federal officials in fiscal 2012 allocated $854 million for both training and TAA administration, which is handled by individual states after the Labor Department decides which groups of workers qualify for help.

Local and national worker advocates are sounding an alarm, trying to rally voters to pressure elected officials to keep funding TAA.

“There’s nothing we can do at the local level,” said LeRoy Jackson Jr., an officer of the Northeast Indiana Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “This is a Washington thing.”

That fact is especially galling for Jackson, who is a member of the Indiana Workforce Investment Board and the state’s Workforce Innovation Council. The Fort Wayne man, who is used to getting things done, doesn’t understand when people don’t keep their promises.

“They kind of wrote us a check we can’t cash,” he said of TAA. “It’s just setting people up to fail.”

Official response

A bill introduced March 6 in the House of Representatives, HR 4163, would extend TAA benefits through 2020.

The legislation’s chances are unclear, considering the upcoming November election. Members of Congress sometimes focus more on campaigning than governing at this point in the election cycle. Even without the distraction of an election, this particular group has been criticized by many voters for failing to find common ground that would lead to more bills being passed.

In Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s district, 656 people were certified for TAA benefits over the past two years, with a 100-person petition pending certification, based on data on the Labor Department’s website. The number is conservative because others who were in groups previously certified might not yet have used their full TAA benefits.

But it’s unclear whether the region’s residents can count on their elected officials to support the bill.

The list of 42 sponsors doesn’t include Stutzman, R-3rd, who represents most of northeast Indiana. Contacted for a comment, his office didn’t provide one.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., both have TAA on their radar, according to spokesmen in their Washington offices.

Donnelly offered support for the program, but Coats didn’t make any promises.

“Senator Coats has voted for the TAA program in the past, and he will carefully evaluate any legislative package that includes TAA renewal,” communications director Matt Lahr wrote in an email.

Donnelly supported TAA-related bills several times when he was a member of the House. He voted for renewals and expansions in 2007, 2009 and 2011, according to his office.

“There is a skills gap in our country and in Indiana, and we should be doing all we can to help Hoosier workers get the training they need in order to fill the thousands of open jobs across our state,” Donnelly said in a statement.

“I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which assists workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It is my hope that Congress will do the right thing and ensure the continuation of this valuable program,” he said in the email.

How it started

TAA was a consolation prize.

It was launched to ease the worries of people who argued as early as 1962 that millions of Americans would be thrown out of work if the U.S. struck trade deals with countries where laborers receive a fraction of the wages and benefits that workers command here.

If U.S. workers could show that trade policy led to their job losses, the federal government would pay for them to get classroom or on-the-job training, if necessary.

Or, if the ideal job was several hours or states away, TAA money would pay for the worker’s family to move. The federal dollars could also be used short term to supplement the wages of workers who could land only low-skilled, low-paying jobs while they kept looking for something that used all their skills and experience.

Federal officials don’t rubber stamp TAA applications. Significant paperwork and persistence is required.

“It’s hard to be certified (for TAA benefits),” Jackson said. “They have to jump through so many hoops. It’s not like it’s an easy process.”

Local TAA supporters say the program works well – despite occasional hiccups in its execution that have made it harder than it should be to get training plans approved.

TAA in action

Gayle Goodrich is a TAA success story.

The former Navistar International Corp. engineer earned a master’s degree in sociology just months before losing her job when the manufacturer moved most of its local operations to the Chicago area.

Lisle, Illinois-based Navistar employed 1,400 here before the drawdown. Local displaced workers successfully argued that they qualified for TAA benefits because Navistar also moved some of the work to India and Mexico.

Goodrich, now 44, didn’t need more time in a classroom. By her last day at Navistar in December 2012, she was ready to transition into a position that put her sociology degree to good use.

The Fort Wayne woman was able to land a job last year as the AFL-CIO community services liaison to the United Way of Allen County, where she directs labor and community services. Goodrich seemed like a natural for the job, based on her experience handling pension and insurance benefits for Navistar co-workers as a member of United Auto Workers Local 2911.

But as a newbie in the profession, Goodrich knew she’d have a tough time commanding a salary comparable to the one she earned at Navistar.

That’s where TAA comes in.

The program agreed to pay a portion on her salary for the first two years while she learns on the job. TAA can pay up to 50 percent of wages for workers being trained on new office or factory skills.

Goodrich declined to say how much she earned at Navistar, but she disclosed that her new job with the nonprofit pays about $10,000 a year less.

In the United Way position, Goodrich works closely with people who are unemployed because of factory closings and other business decisions. TAA benefits are a good option for many of the people she works with, Goodrich said. But the United Way doesn’t take an official stance on pieces of legislation.

Goodrich feels fortunate that most Navistar workers – her friends and former co-workers – have completed their use of TAA benefits

Brent Eastom is president of IUE-CWA Local 901, whose members include nine General Electric workers who will lose their jobs on Jan. 27 as the company closes its last office in Fort Wayne.

If TAA funding isn’t extended, the benefits will evaporate for them, for GE’s local salaried workers and for workers across the country.

Eastom considers it irresponsible of Congress to delay TAA’s renewal. He expects every one of the GE workers would take advantage of at least one of the options: Wage subsidies, education and moving costs.

Dan Marschall, the AFL-CIO policy specialist for workforce issues, has been following the TAA funding issue closely from his Washington office.

“I think what’s really at stake,” he said, “is whether American workers whose jobs have been eliminated by trade acts will get help from the federal government to get new jobs and get back on their feet and be able to feed their families.”

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