Thousands of workers have lost access to trade aid weeks after Congress phased it out

The Labor Department has estimated that thousands of workers have already lost access to retraining grants and other government resources after a decades-old program aimed at helping those losing their jobs to globalization and trade expired this month.

The program expired on July 1 and Congress appears to have found no clear way to renew it as Democrats claim Republicans are blocking efforts to reauthorize it.

That Trade Adjustment Assistance for Workers Program or TAA provided funds for retraining programs, worker relocation, job placement services and more for trade-affected workers. Because Congress allowed the program to expire, any worker who lost their job after July 1 cannot apply for or appeal for any of these services.

The Labor Department estimates that around 4,500 workers have missed out on benefits from the program since it expired, a number that is expected to increase rapidly.

“I can tell you that number is just a start,” said Brent Parton, the employment service’s acting assistant secretary for employment and training. “We will be able to see what the numbers and overall impact of the program will be over the coming weeks and quarters.”

When a company closes a U.S. factory and ships jobs abroad, or closes a factory because it can find cheaper materials abroad, advocates say this decades-old safety net — which once enjoyed bipartisan support — has helped millions of Americans who qualify, find new jobs.

About 100,000 people sign up for TAA annually, and the Department of Labor said more than 5 million people have used it since its inception in 1974, although it’s a relatively little-known program.

Now it will not be there to catch those who lost their post.

“People who are affected now may not even know they are affected,” said Rachel Lipson, co-founder and director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University.

Parton said participants in the program have typically been in their jobs for many years. They also tend to be older and less educated than is typical of the current civilian workforce, meaning “they need solid services and benefits to get back on their feet,” Parton said.

More than 75% of people who participate in TAA, Parton says, drop out and find a new job within six months.

About 900 workers at a US steel mill in Granite City, Illinois, who are likely to be out of work after the sale of their 127-year-old steel mill, may have qualified for TAA but were unable to apply until July 1. Now that her union is working out the details of potential layoffs at US Steel, her options are slimmer.

Inside: Onlookers listen as then-President Donald Trump speaks at US Steel Corp.'s Granite City Works facility on July 26, 2018. in Granite City, Illinois.
Onlookers listen as then-President Donald Trump speaks at the US Steel Corp.’s Granite City Works facility on July 26, 2018. in Granite City, Illinois.Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dan Simmons has worked at the steel mill for over 40 years, starting right out of high school. He said colleagues with the shortest tenure at the plant have been there for about eight years.

When the facility shut down in 2015, Simmons said many of his employees were able to sign up for TAA. They found work elsewhere and did not return when the plant was restarted.

Now, he said, there are many workers at his plant who are not quite of retirement age but who have worked at the plant for decades. They have kids in school or college, face the challenges of rising inflation and the rising cost of living, and don’t know what to do next.

“We need other career paths and training,” he said. “People here have done nothing but be steelworkers and cast steel, and the skills and training they have are really valuable – but in an integrated steelworks. Where will they go to get a job? And one that pays as much as they make today?”

A 2018 Federal Reserve Bank of New York study found that after 10 years, TAA-trained workers were earning about $50,000 more than those who had not participated in the program due to higher incomes and greater labor force participation.

Roy Houseman, the legislative director of the United Steel Workers Union, said the program gave him support when the Montana paper mill where he worked closed in 2010. He said it made a significant difference for him and his colleagues at the time, giving them some guidance after suddenly losing their jobs.

But Houseman has faced opposition in Congress, particularly from Republicans, who question whether it’s worth its $500 million to $1 billion asking price.

“Republicans are choosing to play games with people’s ability to get a job and improve their lives — that’s what I’m dealing with,” he said, voice louder. “Sorry I’m a bit angry because I can’t get 60 votes and that’s why I can’t get trade adjustment help for people.”

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Many Republicans have opposed funding for TAA after the program was detached from the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a bill that made it easier for Congress to approve trade deals. The two had previously been packaged together, but the Biden administration phased out the TPA last year in response to dissatisfaction with America’s trade deals. The government has said it is reluctant to make new pacts and aims to expand manufacturing in the United States.

Rep. Kevin Brady, the senior Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement to NBC News Friday that “President Biden’s moratorium on new trade deals appears to be firm.” According to Republicans, this “moratorium” has hurt market exports and challenged the need for TAA.

“There would have to be a much stronger ironclad commitment to regaining American trade leadership to even begin this discussion of extending the TAA,” he said. “We’re open to creative ideas here, but unless we have a serious, meaningful trade agenda that opens markets for American workers, TAA doesn’t make much sense.”

Democrats have attempted to include the program in various vehicles over the past year. Most recently, they tried to include it in a package aimed at boosting domestic computer chip production, which was trimmed down to pass the Senate. TAA was cut in the process.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Republicans “blocked” a renewal. The finance committee chair said he plans to use the committee to “continue to make reapproving and improving the program a top priority for Congress — as well as for the workers and businesses who can benefit from a workforce that’s over successfully possesses the necessary skills.”

Another Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said he was deeply disappointed by the phasing out of the program, particularly because he was able to negotiate a short-term extension last year. He accused Republicans of holding TAA hostage.

But the way forward is unclear, and the scope for action at this Congress is dwindling.

Parton said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the White House are working with Congress in hopes of getting the program reauthorized.

“On the one hand, nobody wants to see that the program has expired,” he said. But he hoped “the implications of this will create some urgency to complete a deal.”

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/thousands-workers-lost-access-trade-assistance-weeks-congress-rcna34574 Thousands of workers have lost access to trade aid weeks after Congress phased it out

Fry Electronics Team

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