NAFTA job retraining program out of money

Six months into the federal fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Labor's program of benefits for dislocated workers has run out of money.

North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and trade-related job losses are up, and as a result, the $110 million fund Congress allocated to pay for retraining and extended unemployment benefits this year is already tapped out.

The benefits derive from a federal law passed in 1974 and modified with the passage of NAFTA in 1993. The law obligates the U.S. government to provide dislocated worker benefits for employees in manufacturing who lose their jobs at least partly as a result of competition with foreign imports or shifts in production to Canada or Mexico.

The help starts with assistance in finding a job in the workers' existing field if it's available, including reimbursement for moving expenses to take a job outside the local area. If there's no suitable work in their field, workers can then get career counseling and assistance in training - tuition and books and supplies - for up to 104 weeks of full-time training in any job-related educational program in a field where they can expect to find work.

Meanwhile, the program pays up to a year of extra unemployment benefits while the worker is enrolled in training.

This year, the increase in trade-related layoffs has used up the budget early and cast doubt on whether the government will come through with more funding.

Workers in Oregon whose applications are already approved will continue to get the promised benefits.

But the Oregon Employment Department announced on April 11 that it would no longer consider new applications after April 12. Applications can still be turned in, but won't be processed until new money is released, said Oregon Employment Department dislocated worker specialist Sharyl Weber. Weber said her department has requested more funds from the U.S. Labor Department, but it's not clear if or when they'll be approved.

The cutoff comes at a very bad time for 400 laid off Steelworkers at Oremet Wah Chang in Albany. Labor Department investigators had just certified those job losses as trade-related, meaning they would be eligible for benefits, but employees had not had a chance to apply.

Verle Steele, the Oregon AFL-CIO's liaison to the dislocated worker program, said such workers will still have access to some benefits in the meantime, but the difference is substantial. The NAFTA/Trade Adjustment Act benefits provide up to $12,000 per worker in training assistance, whereas the standard dislocated worker benefit under the Workforce Investment Act is no more than $2,000 to $4,000.

April 20, 2001 issue

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