Lawmakers propose stronger plant closing notification law

WASHINGTON –(Workday Minnesota) Saying the nation’s 21-year-old plant closing law needs to be widened and toughened to account for changes in today’s economy, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in late June to do so. The “Forewarn Act,” by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., and others, would extend the present plant closing law to cover mass layoffs or shutdowns affecting 25 workers or more, not 50. The present law covers only 24% of companies.

Their new bill also would require firms to give workers three months’ notice of a closing, not two. And the company would have to inform the state governor and the congressional delegations whose constituents would feel the impact.

Their proposal would also order double back pay for workers for each day the company violates the law and fails to tell them of the shutdown in advance. And it would give the Labor Department more enforcement power against companies that break the law -- and a recent government report said two-thirds do.

The plant closing law, officially known as the WARN Act, was pushed through Congress by unions after a slew of sudden shutdowns during the Reagan era. The labor movement has long argued it should be updated.

In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record 7,818 mass layoffs, each affecting at least 50 workers. More than half the layoffs were in the Midwest, with four states -- California, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio -- dominating the data. “Associated worker separations were at its highest level since 2001, at 1,383,553,” BLS said.

“Four major industry sectors reported program highs in terms of events and separations in 2008 -- construction, finance and insurance, educational services, and accommodation and food services, with annual data available back to 1996,” BLS said. But while those four industries saw record highs in mass layoffs, they were dwarfed by more mass layoffs (though not sector records) in factories, especially autos, BLS added.

The mass layoffs are not just numbers. They also do enormous damage to workers, families and communities, Brown, Miller and McHugh said.

“Workers deserve more than just a pink slip when they lose their job because of our nation’s economic difficulties. Current protections for workers being laid off are both confusing and rarely enforced. While an early warning may not save their job, a meaningful early notice will help them prepare to find a new job or upgrade their skills for new employment,” Miller said