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Thousands of workers have lost access to trade assistance weeks after Congress allowed it to expire

The Department of Labor estimated around 4,500 workers missed out on the programs’ benefits since it lapsed on July 1. About 100,000 people sign up for it annually.
Image: Steelworkers ride on a bottle train transporting molten steel on the grounds of the U.S. Steel Corp. Granite City Works steel mill in Granite City, Ill., on July 7, 2021.
Steelworkers ride on a bottle train transporting molten steel on the grounds of a U.S. Steel mill in Granite City, Ill., in 2021. Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The Department of Labor has estimated that thousands of workers have already lost access to retraining assistance and other federal resources after a decades-old program aimed at helping those who lose their jobs to globalization and trade expired this month.

The program lapsed July 1 and Congress does not appear to have found a clear path to renewing it, as Democrats claim Republicans are blocking efforts to reauthorize it.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance for Workers program, or TAA, provided funding for retraining programs, worker relocation, job-seeking services and more for trade-affected workers. Because Congress allowed the program to expire, any worker who lost their job after July 1 can't apply for or appeal an application for any of those services.

The Labor Department estimated that around 4,500 workers have missed out on the programs’ benefits since it lapsed, a number that is expected to quickly grow.

"I can tell you that number's just a start," said Brent Parton, acting assistant secretary of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. "We'll be able to see what the numbers will be and the impact of the program overall in the coming weeks and quarters."

If a company closes a factory in the U.S. and ships jobs overseas or shuts down a plant because it can find cheaper materials abroad, advocates said this decades-old safety net — that at one time boasted bipartisan support — has been there to help millions of Americans who qualify find new jobs.

About 100,000 people sign up for TAA annually, and the Department of Labor said more than 5 million people have used it since its inception in 1974, even though it is a relatively little-known program.

Now, it won’t be there to catch those who have lost their post.

"The people who are being affected now might not even know they're being affected," Rachel Lipson, the co-founder and director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University, said.

Parton said participants in the program tend to have been in their jobs for numerous years. They also tend to be older and educated at a lower level than is typical in the current civilian labor force, which means "they need robust services and benefits to get them back on their feet," Parton said.

Over 75% of people who participate in TAA, Parton said, exit the program and find a new job within six months.

The roughly 900 workers of a U.S. Steel mill in Granite City, Illinois, who are likely to be out of a job after their 127-year-old steel plant is sold, may have qualified for TAA, but they weren't able to apply for it before July 1. Now, as their union hammers out the details of potential layoffs with U.S. Steel, their options are fewer.

Inside: Audience members listen as then-President Donald Trump speaks at the U.S. Steel Corp. Granite City Works facility in Granite City, Ill.,  on July 26, 2018.
Audience members listen as then-President Donald Trump speaks at the U.S. Steel Corp. Granite City Works facility in Granite City, Ill., on July 26, 2018.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dan Simmons has worked at the steel mill for over 40 years, starting right out of high school. He said colleagues with the least amount of time at the mill have been employed there for around eight years.

When the plant was idled in 2015, Simmons said many of his co-workers were able to sign up for TAA. They found work elsewhere and didn't return when the plant was restarted.

Now, he said, there are plenty of workers at his plant who aren't quite at retirement age but have spent decades at the plant. They have kids in school or college, are facing the challenges of rising inflation and cost of living, and don't know what they'll do next.

"We need other career paths and training," he said. "Guys here have done nothing but be steel operators and pour steel, and the skill and training they have is really valuable — but at an integrated steel mill. Where are they going to go get a job at? And one that pays anything like they make today?"

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2018 found that after 10 years TAA-trained workers earned about $50,000 more than those who did not participate in the program because of higher incomes and greater labor force participation.

Roy Houseman, the legislative director for United Steel Workers union, said that he received assistance through the program when the Montana paper mill he worked at closed in 2010. He said it made a significant difference for him and his co-workers at the time and provided them a sense of direction after the sudden job loss.

But Houseman has faced opposition in Congress, particularly from Republicans, who question whether it is worth its $500 million to $1 billion price tag.

"Republicans are choosing to play games with people's ability to get job training and improve their lives — that's what I'm dealing with," he said, his voice rising. "Sorry, I'm a little livid because I can't get 60 votes, and so I can't get trade adjustment assistance for people."

Many Republicans have resisted funding TAA after the program was uncoupled from the Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, a package of laws that simplified how Congress approves trade agreements. The two had previously been packaged together, but the Biden administration allowed TPA to expire last year, in response to dissatisfaction with American trade deals. The administration has said that it is not inclined to create new pacts and aims to build out manufacturing in the United States.

Rep. Kevin Brady, the Republican ranking member of the House Ways and Means committee, said in a statement to NBC News on Friday that "President Biden's moratorium on new trade agreements seems firm." In Republicans' view that "moratorium" has impinged on market exports and throws cold water on the need for TAA.

"There would have to be a much stronger ironclad commitment to resuming American leadership in trade to even begin this discussion on extending TAA," he said. "We’re open to creative ideas here, but if we don’t have a serious, significant trade agenda that opens up markets for American workers, TAA doesn’t make much sense.”

Democrats have attempted to include the program in various vehicles over the past year. They most recently attempted to attach it to a package aimed at boosting domestic computer chip production, which was slimmed down to pass out of the Senate. TAA was cut in that process.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Republicans had "stonewalled" a renewal. The chair of the Finance Committee said he plans to use the committee to "continue to make reauthorization and improvement of the program a top priority for Congress — as well as the workers and businesses that stand to gain from a workforce that has the skills needed to succeed.”

Another Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said he was deeply disappointed in the program's expiration, especially because he was able to negotiate a short-term extension last year. He accused Republicans of holding TAA hostage.

But the path forward still remains unclear and opportunities for this Congress to act are shrinking.

Parton said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the White House are working together with Congress in hopes of getting the program reauthorized.

“On the one hand, no one wants to see that the expiration of the program happened,” he said. But he hoped “that the impact of this is going to create some urgency around getting a deal done.”