Federal Program Helps American Workers Who Lost Jobs To Trade Policies

Feb 2, 2017
Originally published on February 2, 2017 7:33 pm
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We heard a lot through the campaign, and we continue to talk about American workers who've lost their jobs to trade policy - people left behind by seismic changes in the global economy. Well, there's a little-known federal program designed specifically for them. It's about four decades old. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast traveled to Erie, Penn., to see it in action.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Mick Borland worked at the General Electric plant in Erie, and then one day about a year ago, he was on the shop floor. His bosses came down.

MICK BORLAND: They give us pieces of paper saying that we're being laid off.

KING: Does it just say, sorry, you're fired?

BORLAND: No. Sorry, you're unemployed (laughter).

KING: GE makes locomotives in Erie, but orders are down, and the countries that are ordering them, like India, want them made in India. Mick and 1,500 others lost their jobs, but in a way, Mick was lucky. His union was able to prove his job was lost to trade policy. It applied through the Department of Labor to get him trade adjustment assistance, or TAA.

The idea behind TAA is simple. For most Americans, trade is good. We can buy cheaper phones and TVs and clothing. U.S. companies can sell more overseas. But some people get hurt. Factories close. Jobs go away. So in 1974, the government came up with TAA, a program known for its generosity.

RUBEN PACHAY: This is what we call the Cadillac of all training programs.

KING: That is Ruben Pachay. He oversees trade-related job retraining for the state of Pennsylvania. TAA aims to move laid-off workers into industries that aren't dying by sending them to school to retrain. While they're in school, they get money. It's like an unemployment check, but one that keeps coming for up to two and a half years. People like Ruben sell the program to laid-off workers. They talk about the schooling, the money and about another big benefit - if you can find a job and you're willing to leave Erie, the government will pay for you to move.

PACHAY: During my tenure, the furthest we've relocated someone would be Puerto Rico. They got a job as a biologist.

KING: Really?

PACHAY: Yeah. Bilingual, so that helped him a lot, and the company hired him Puerto Rico, so we relocated his family to Puerto Rico.

KING: Ruben and his colleagues love these success stories, but they admit they're not all successes. I met Mick Borland, the guy who was laid off from GE at the Erie Institute of Technology. He and a lot of his former coworkers are retraining there. Mick is doing HVAC - heating, ventilation and air conditioning. When class lets out, instead of a bunch of young people, it's mostly older people - men in their 50s and 60s. And for them, TAA has been mixed. They wonder why the federal government insists they go back to school. Mick remembers the meeting where they explained his TAA benefits. A man stood up. He said he was 63 and a half. Could he just get extended unemployment, skip the retraining?

BORLAND: And they told us we were not allowed to do that. To get the benefit, we had to come to school. So it's costing the federal government the cost of our school to be here when some of us don't want to be.

KING: And then in class, Mick's sitting next to a guy who is 19 years old. When they graduate, they'll be competing for work.

Do you expect to get a job in HVAC?

BORLAND: That's my goal. That's part of retraining - is you have to have a goal.

KING: You're smiling a little bit like you don't really believe it, though.

BORLAND: Well, I'm going to be 61 years old. How many people are going to hire me at 61?

KING: Pennsylvania recently had some problems of its own. It made cuts to the department that runs TAA, so people's benefit checks - the checks they depend on - are coming four, five, six weeks late. Still, at the moment, this is the best federal program for laid-off workers on offer. Noel King, NPR News.

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