Job Went Overseas? Tough Luck, Says Congress

Photo: Worker at Exxel Outdoors plant

Life just got harder for Americans out of work because of foreign competition.

Congress on Saturday failed to extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides aid to some 150,000 workers unemployed because their jobs were outsourced overseas or their company couldn't compete with imported goods. In the past two years about 360,000 Americans have qualified for TAA benefits, which include reimbursement for schooling and retraining costs to find jobs in a new and different industry.

The benefits paid vary by state, but an average worker enrolled in a year-long training program gets around $15,000, in addition to what TAA pays for tuition.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, in a Feb. 9 statement urging Congress to extend the program's benefits, called TAA "an essential lifeline" helping trade-impacted workers get job training, placement assistance and income support needed to help them succeed in "a tough job market."

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Connie Thompson, 50, knows just how tough that market is.

Until a year ago, Thompson worked at a paper mill in Frenchtown, Mont. She'd logged 27 years there and expected to retire from her job. Then the mill announced it would be closing, and that she and over 400 of her co-workers would be out of work.

Because competition from imported Chinese wood products contributed to the mill's demise, she qualified for assistance under TAA. She got money for tuition and books and is currently earning a degree in criminology and sociology at the University of Montana -- part of her plan to segue into a new career. She calls TAA "a great program."

Originally created in 1974, TAA has been modified and expanded several times. Economist Howard Rosen, executive director of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Coalition and an architect of part of that expansion, says that until a few years ago TAA was "a tiny program" with modest scope. There were only about 50,000 people enrolled in it, and its budget was about a half a billion dollars a year. But as anxieties about job losses due to globalization have increased, the program has expanded.

The biggest changes came in 2009. Up to then, only workers who'd lost jobs in manufacturing could qualify for benefits. After 2009, however, coverage expanded to include service workers and those who lose jobs when their employers shift production overseas. The expansion also gave benefits not just to makers of finished goods but to makers of components. Result: Funding for retraining has almost tripled.

Republican critics of the program, who call it ineffective, have estimated that its continuation would cost $620 million for the remainder of 2011 and $6.5 billion over the next decade.

Extension of the 2009 enhancements came up for a vote in Congress Saturday, but legislators took no action. That outcome was the result of a Byzantine political stalemate, in which extension of TAA was held hostage by Republicans trying to force Democrats to approve a trade deal involving sleeping bags.

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