WASHINGTON - Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that has helped hundreds of thousands of workers get back on their feet after their jobs went overseas, could soon disappear due to an error by Congress, worker advocates say.
That's because a "technical drafting error" in legislation the 111th Congress passed in December kills the program on Feb. 13, not just parts of it. And when two Democratic senators offered a fix, Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyom., said "no," blocking it.
The TAA program was created in the 1970s to aid workers who become jobless due to the impact of international trade. In the last 20 years, as Congress enacted NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and other free trade pacts, rising numbers of workers have depended on TAA for support in rebuilding their lives.
And one of the pro-worker pieces of legislation the 111th Congress passed expanded the TAA program to cover more industries and more workers - including workers indirectly hurt by trade.
Now, for example, TAA would not only cover workers at a closed factory where the jobs moved overseas due to imports, but also workers at the local diner who sold lunches to the factory workers.
Last year, more than 280,000 workers nationwide were certified to receive Trade Adjustment Assistance, which includes money for training and career counseling and in some cases also covers the cost of health care and relocating to a new job. TAA sometimes replaces unemployment benefits.
"This program has truly been a lifeline for many Minnesota families," said Mike Goldman, dislocated worker labor liaison for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, who learned of the looming end of TAA through an e-mail from the national Citizens Trade Campaign.
"If it disappears, it is going to cause huge havoc - and hardship," he added.
Goldman, a member of Minnesota's team that responds to assist workers affected by plant closings and major layoffs, cited an e-mail from a Citizens Trade Campaign staffer, who quoted an article in Inside U.S. Trade. That national trade journal says TAA will end Feb. 13 due to "a technical drafting error" in December's law.
The measure was intended to extend some special TAA benefits from Dec. 31 to Feb. 12, but instead had the effect of slating the entire program to expire in mid-February, the journal said.
Goldman contacted U.S. Department of Labor officials to clarify the situation and to find out the effect on current TAA participants if Congress fails to extend the program or acts, but does so after Feb. 13. "Nobody can give me an answer," he said.
Ironically, Goldman was gearing up to promote the TAA program later this year at regional forums - through a grant awarded by the Department of Labor.
The "drafting error," which reportedly occurred when the Senate acted on the TAA legislation, comes at a time when the Obama administration is pressuring Congress to pass the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
Advocates of fair trade, including unions and the Citizens Fair Trade Campaign and the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, criticize free trade pacts in general and the Korean one in particular for providing numerous benefits to corporations but no protections for workers, consumers or the environment. In the past, Trade Adjustment Assistance has been offered to win support for trade agreements.