Congress Kills Benefit For Laid-Off Factory Workers

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program helped about 100,000 workers each year.

WASHINGTON ― For decades, factory workers who lost their jobs when their employers moved production abroad could qualify for special benefits to help them find new careers.

Not anymore.

Congress faced a July 1 deadline to keep the Trade Adjustment Assistance program alive, but lawmakers failed to do so. In recent years, the program benefitted around 100,000 workers annually.

The best hope for a continuation of TAA, as the program is known, had been a bill to boost the domestic semiconductor chip industry. The likely final version of that legislation cleared a procedural Senate vote on Tuesday without an extension of the worker assistance.

United Steelworkers president Thomas Conway said he supported the chips bill because it will boost jobs and scientific research, but he harshly criticized senators for leaving out the training program, which faced Republican opposition.

“Today, thousands of workers who have seen their jobs outsourced to countries, like China, cannot get access to job training because 10 Republican Senators in a caucus of 50 chose not to help,” Conway wrote in a Monday letter to senators.

The TAA program typically provides job counseling, retraining for new careers or wage subsidies for older workers who take lower-paying jobs than what they’d previously earned. Enrollees are often former manufacturing workers who are older, less educated and less white than the broader workforce. Two-thirds find new jobs within a year, though not necessarily better pay.

“They don’t want any help for workers, particularly workers who have been thrown out of their jobs because of lousy trade deals.”

- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Democrats moved forward with the chips bill without TAA or a host of other components still under negotiation because of widespread agreement on the main provisions and a legislative time crunch. The House and Senate are set to go on August recess and have other priorities to deal with in September.

Congress is finishing the bill amid a global chip shortage that has affected other products with electronic components, such as cars. Lawmakers have described the bill as essential for maintaining national competitiveness with China as well as for national security.

“If you talk to the military experts, or the national defense contractors, they’ll tell you they need chips, there’s 250 chips in a javelin launching system and that’s not as sophisticated as some of the new equipment,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said Sunday. “They’re made in Taiwan. So it’s just a national security imperative.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) urged lawmakers to support the chips bill.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) urged lawmakers to support the chips bill.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

The bill provides more than $50 billion in subsidies for the semiconductor industry plus more than $150 billion to boost scientific research through agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who voted for the bill on Tuesday, told HuffPost the investment in scientific research will pay dividends for decades. But she lamented that Republicans had refused to support TAA.

“They don’t want any help for workers, particularly workers who have been thrown out of their jobs because of lousy trade deals,” Warren said.

Republicans have said they only opposed trade assistance because the Biden administration is not currently negotiating any new trade deals. Trade assistance has traditionally been reauthorized alongside “Trade Promotion Authority” legislation that gives trade deals a fast track through Congress after they’ve been negotiated by the executive branch.

The measure moving in the Senate this week is a scaled-down compromise based on two bills separately passed by the House and Senate. The House bill had included an extension of trade assistance, while the Senate bill sought to pare back tariffs imposed on Chinese imports by former president Donald Trump.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that Democrats held out for the worker benefit in negotiations with the Senate and suggested that Democrats will try to bargain for a resumption of trade adjustment assistance sometime in the future.

“I said, ‘If you’re not going to have trade assistance in the bill, you’re not going to have trade in the bill.’ So they took out the whole trade title,” Pelosi said. “So when we go back to those kinds of negotiations, we had that leverage.”

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