The truth about Trade Adjustment Assistance

In 2009, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress worked with President Obama to craft a bipartisan agreement that improved the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program to help American workers who lost their jobs to foreign competition or outsourcing.

Refreshingly, both parties worked across the aisle to fix what wasn’t working and to fit the program for the future, based on recommendations from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

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The agreement expanded eligibility to include American service workers to reflect global competition in areas beyond manufacturing and commodities. It covered workers whose jobs were moved overseas to any country — not just those with which the United States had a prior free trade agreement. It also improved the program’s effectiveness by increasing access to job training, health coverage and employment services. 

These bipartisan improvements expired in February. The president is calling on Congress to renew a robust TAA as it takes up trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

A TAA program that reflects the 2009 bipartisan goals is essential to a balanced trade agenda. It will support jobs here at home as we open new markets to American exporters, while recognizing the costs of trade to some on our shores.

Many Americans don’t know what TAA is. They don’t hear about it unless they need it or the program is up for renewal. Unfortunately, false rumors are endangering this program and the workers who rely upon it. So here are the facts:

It’s not true that TAA is only available to union workers. The truth is, the program is available to all American workers who qualify. In fact, two-thirds of eligible participants are not union members. 

Workers who use the TAA program are twice as likely to live in small towns and cities as large metropolitan areas, and sometimes work on farms or fisheries. A TAA petition may be filed by a group of three or more workers, an employer, a union, a state workforce official, an operator or partner of a local One-Stop Career Center or another duly authorized representative. In 2009, more than nine out of 10 TAA petitions were filed by non-union firms or groups. 

It’s not true that TAA helps workers whose job losses have nothing to do with foreign competition. The truth is, workers must meet specific criteria connecting their job losses with foreign trade, such as increased imports or production shifts.

Under the 2009 agreement, eligible workers may be from a U.S. firm that produces the same product or supplies the same service as an overseas competitor. They also may be from a company that supplies parts for a finished product that is being imported from overseas, such as suppliers for another affected company where workers have become eligible for TAA. 

It’s not true that the 2009 TAA improvements doubled the program’s size and cost. This assertion, cited by some critics, was based on a fiscal 2011 budget request from the Department of Labor that relied on earlier cost estimates that didn’t reflect the impact several amendments had on controlling costs. The truth is, the 2009 improvements turned out to be far less costly than those estimates suggested.

Finally, the most damaging falsehood about TAA is the notion that it’s a duplicative subsidy for workers who could get the same help from a different program. The truth is, TAA is tailored to meet the training needs of a narrow group of dislocated workers who are older and have fewer transferable skills or credentials than other laid-off workers. 

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Eligible workers typically have worked an average of 12 years in specific factory positions where their skills do not easily qualify them for other work. Most have a maximum education of a high school diploma. More than two-thirds are over age 40. 

Without the transitional assistance and training offered by TAA, these American breadwinners and their families risk sliding down the economic scale, out of the middle class. TAA provides critical resources they need to develop new skills to succeed in vital growth industries.

As the White House and Congress advance a strong, market-opening trade agenda to create more jobs here at home, we have a responsibility to ensure that American workers affected by foreign competition have the assistance they need to adapt and succeed in the 21st-century economy.

Solis is the secretary of Labor. Kirk is the U.S. Trade Representative.