Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Program aids workers whose jobs go overseas

Obama's stimulus boosts assistance, rolls of eligible By Bonna Johnson • THE TENNESSEAN • June 2, 2009 When Kennetha Wade lost her job making washing machine motors for General Electric in Murfreesboro, she knew a midlife career change was in order after 29 years on the assembly line. So, Wade, 52, has spent the last two years learning about computer programming to get an associate's degree in information technology — all at taxpayers' expense. Wade, whose job moved to India, was able to receive unemployment checks for two years and get a few other perks as part of a federal program that aids people whose employers shift their jobs overseas. And now, the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program is being expanded as part of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, a move that may double the annual cost of the federal program to $2 billion within five years. New rules cover a broader range of workers than simply those in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Covered workers are able to qualify for unemployment checks for up to three years — or nearly twice as long as the typical worker who isn't affected by "off-shoring" or the shift of jobs to foreign countries. Others get help paying health insurance costs. Also, starting in May, laid-off white-collar workers in service industries such as accounting, software development, auto-parts design and call center operations became eligible for the more generous benefits, a move that could add more workers to the rolls as unemployment in Tennessee flirts with the 10 percent level, a full percentage point above the U.S. rate. Federal labor officials expect a 30 percent increase in the number of workers certified under the program. They started taking applications late last month. "It's been a big help," Wade said of the program. "We deserve it. Businesses go overseas to make money, and workers there make three-fourths of what we made. So, yeah, I think workers here should get that help." In 2007, however, only 56 percent of the Tennessee participants found jobs, far lower than the national average of 70 percent, according to the most recent federal data. High-demand jobs only Participants can enroll in training only for high-demand occupations, such as health-care and green jobs. In Tennessee, about 7,700 laid-off workers at 55 different manufacturing companies were certified in 2007 to participate in the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, according to the federal Department of Labor. More recently, factory workers who assembled brakes and shocks at a plant in Columbia, Tenn., qualified after their jobs went to Mexico, as did workers who made electronic components in Chattanooga when their jobs shifted to China. Workers in Calhoun, Tenn., whose jobs in the paper-making business got shipped to Canada also benefited recently. Last year, workers at 82 Tennessee companies were certified under the program, and this year 24 companies have been affected, state labor officials said. Tennessee ranks third behind Michigan and North Carolina in petitions filed for the trade assistance program, said Melinda Williams, administrator of marketing and outreach programs for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The state has $12 million in federal funds for the program this year, but that probably won't be enough as the program expands to cover an array of white-collar jobs, Williams predicted. Eighty-five percent of Tennessee participants complete their retraining, she said, labeling that statistic "extremely successful." 'It's no fault of our own' Nationwide, about 50,000 workers receive benefits and training through the trade assistance program — out of more than 5 million people who receive unemployment benefits overall. To qualify, workers, their company or a union must prove a job was lost because of increased import competition, a shift of that function to another country, or a U.S. company's move overseas, said Howard Rosen, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit TAA Coalition, which helps workers understand the program. Rosen is also a resident visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It may seem discriminatory that some laid-off workers get more help than others, Rosen said, but the concept was established as long ago as the early 1960s in the U.S. Rosen helped draft changes to the trade assistance program for Congress as recently as 2002. Manufacturing workers in Tennessee who have been helped by the federal program in the past see it as a way to win a measure of payback in an often-harsh global economy. "It's no fault of our own that the plant shut down like that," said Waylon Hackett, 37, of Red Boiling Springs, Tenn. Three years ago, he lost his job operating a die-cutting machine at an American Greetings plant that made greeting cards and envelopes. The factory in Lafayette, Tenn., was hurt in part by increased competition in the industry from countries like China. Hackett spent two years in a machine tool technology program at the Tennessee Technology Center in Livingston, courtesy of the trade assistance program. He has since taken part in a three-year training program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and when he finishes, expects to work in one of the corps' hydroelectric plants along the Cumberland River. "I don't think I would have went back to school and found a job without that help," Hackett said. "I really can't imagine what I would be doing without it."

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