AUGUSTA, Maine — More than a thousand Mainers who have been laid off from 21 companies from South Portland to Baileyville to Ashland because of unfair trade practices are poised to receive expanded benefits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But there are concerns about whether the federal Department of Labor has the staff to promptly handle the applications under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
“We got the program re-authorized and expanded as part of the stimulus package,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. “This is a very important program, and we made significant changes in the program and improved it greatly.”
Under the revised Recovery Act, laid-off workers now can get up to 130 weeks of cash payments if enrolled in full-time training, enhanced job search and relocation payments, and a tax credit that covers 80 percent of their health insurance cost.
Regular unemployment benefits last 26 weeks with possible extensions during an economic downturn, but those additional benefits are not automatic.
The expansion took effect May 18.
“This has been a critical program for Maine to retrain workers who have lost their jobs,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “We increased the funding for the program in the Recovery Act and improved it during the negotiations on the package.”
In addition to the benefits improvement, eligibility has also been expanded. It now covers more workers affected by unfair trade subsidies and practices. For example, companies that provide services such as call center and bookkeeping services are now covered.
The expanded eligibility also includes companies that supply and provide services to companies that have had their workers certified for coverage. Workers at companies that shift production to any foreign country are also eligible for the program now.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said the program has been a major help to laid-off workers across the state, even though it has been more difficult to get petitions approved over the last several years of the Bush administration. He said that while petitions were discouraged under Bush, they are welcomed under President Obama’s administration.
“The former Secretary of Labor, Secretary [Elaine] Chao, actually encouraged Maine not to apply for any more benefits when the workers were eligible for benefits under the old program,” he said.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, agreed that the program is providing important benefits to allow workers to retrain for the new jobs being created in areas such as technology. She was surprised at news reports that there are few staff assigned to the program and said that would be addressed.
“It’s part of what has gone on in government over the last decade of just shrinking departments that should be either doing oversight or providing assistance. So now when we need them, they are not there,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal reported there are only three “certifying officers” that must give final approval to petitions. In 2007, they handled 2,222 petitions and approved 1,449. An aide to Snowe said the Department of Labor will be adding two more certifying officers under provisions of the Recovery Act.
Michaud said he is concerned that the new benefits package has created an “unfair” system with workers under the old package receiving less than those certified after May 18. He said the program should be modified to provide the greater level of benefits to all affected by trade policies, not just those most recently affected by trade.
“We have got to make sure, number one, that the benefits are consistent regardless of when an individual received their layoff notice,” he said. “The second thing we have got to do is make sure the process is streamlined and we add more staff to the Department of Labor to handle the additional petitions being filed.”
With the improved benefits, it is expected petitions to get certified for the program will increase. For workers to be certified for TAA, they must meet several criteria, including:
• A significant number of jobs must be threatened, and that is defined as three workers in a work force of fewer than 50 workers or 5 percent of the workers at a larger company.
• The sales of the company or its production must have declined and the decrease must be attributable to competing imports or that company’s shift of production to another country.
Michaud said the applications are not automatically approved with DOL having the power to subpoena records of the company to verify claims. He said additional staff has been authorized under the Recovery Act.
The only appeal from the DOL is the U.S. Court of International Trade.