Providing our workers with real relief

Congressman Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), Special to The County
16 years ago

While Labor Day gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to our dedicated workers throughout our state and across the nation, it also reminds us that too many Mainers are victims of an economy that is struggling.     We all heard the news about the 150 Domtar employees of the Woodland Mill in Baileyville who recently lost their employment when the company announced that it was shutting down the mill’s paper machine.
The ultimate culprit, as it is so often the case in Maine, is unfair trade practices. The U.S. Department of Labor recently certified that trade was to blame when it informed the Maine congressional delegation that these employees would qualify for the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides income support, job training, and other benefits to workers if they are displaced due to international trade.
While this announcement of federal assistance is a bit of good news for these workers and their families, it of course does nothing to stop the hemorrhaging of our manufacturing jobs here in Maine. Our economy has been a victim of unfair trade for far too long, and this Labor Day we must renew our commitment to keep these jobs right where they belong — right here in the State of Maine.
While I am committed to fighting for fairer trade deals, I am also committed to fighting for fairer benefits for our workers who are displaced from their jobs. I have recently met with the Domtar workers to discuss the implications of this closing. These workers are dedicated, talented and hard-working Mainers who have given their all. And while these workers appreciate any source of assistance the federal, state, and local governments can provide, they also want to get back on the job and provide for their families.
As Congress considers reauthorizing the Trade Adjustment Assistance program this year, we must make some sweeping improvements to the program to provide our dislocated workers the relief the desperately need.
In September, I will be introducing my “Worker Relief Act of 2007” legislation, to provide these workers and their families with access to additional resources to get through the difficult period after a layoff.
This bill would fix some glaring problems under the current law for Trade Adjustment Assistance. According to the non-partisan Government Accounting Office, less than one in ten TAA participants enrolled in the program’s Health Care Tax Credit, which is supposed to offset some of the worker’s health care costs. The report concluded that high out-of-pocket costs – the credit covers only 65 percent of a worker’s premium – and the complexity of the tax credit may discourage workers from using the benefit. My legislation would allow individuals who receive the Health Care Tax Credit to be reimbursed or given advance credit for 100 percent of their health care costs.
My bill would also ensure that dislocated workers are not taxed federally on their unemployment benefits or any severance packages. This would provide families with extra cash assistance while they get back on their feet. In addition, the legislation would expand penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans (401k) during periods of unemployment for any employee.
This legislation would be an important step forward in providing workers with much-needed relief. However, our country also needs to look at a long-term solution for keeping people working in the first place. The first step in making a real change is to end the practice of making the kinds of badly flawed trade deals that have crippled our job base and accelerated the rush of jobs overseas, and create a level playing field so that our businesses and our workers can compete in world markets. This remains my very top priority.