As Southern California Edison (SCE) began replacing its IT workers with foreign labor, several IT employees asked the U.S. government for help. They submitted an application for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), and explained why they believe trade played a role in their job loss.
The SCE workers noted that the utility "used a large percentage of foreign IT workers, at times over 50%," they wrote in their application for benefits.
"The use of foreign IT workers makes it much harder for American IT workers to find jobs in America, particularly those like the petitioners, who are all age 50+," the workers wrote.
The SCE application for TAA benefits was filed in mid-December 2013 and benefits were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. But this application from SCE employees may have been among the last ones that the government approved for IT workers. Beginning in 2014, service workers, including IT employees, were deemed ineligible for TAA benefits.
The White House is trying to get Congress to restore TAA coverage for service workers, and that may, once again, make displaced IT personnel eligible for benefits. A bill to do awaits Senate action.
Restoring coverage for service workers is now tied to the fate of the Trade Promotion Authority, which gives President Obama fast-track authority to complete a trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with Asian nations.
The TPP is creating its own worries about its impact on H-1B usage, which is the primary visa used in IT job displacement. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in particular, recently warned that the trade agreement "could enable controversial changes or increases" in visas such as the H-1B.
For its part, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program was created in the 1960s to help manufacturing employees displaced by the shifting of work overseas. But the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a spending stimulus adopted during the recession, expanded the TAA program to include service workers, which covered IT until the funding ended.
The TAA program delivers a number of benefits.
"It's a great program, if you find yourself in a bad spot," said a former IT employee of Northeast Utilities who lost her job after the Connecticut utility, now called Eversource, shifted work to two India-based IT services firms. This worker, who asked that her name not be disclosed, applied before the TAA program excluded service workers.
The Northeast Utilities IT worker said TAA extended her unemployment benefits from six months to 1.5 years provided she was receiving additional training. The unemployment extension, as well as TAA-supplied tuition assistance, allowed her to earn two associate degrees. (TAA offers a range of other benefits, such as relocation help and help with medical insurance.)
To be eligible today for TAA, an employee has to physically make an object. IT workers that can demonstrate that they were part of a manufacturing process may be eligible, but getting approval is tougher. The exclusion of IT workers from TAA has had a clear impact. For instance, Bank of America workers applied after a 2014 layoff when six IT positions were transferred to India. There were layoffs in other departments as well. But the Labor Dept. said its investigation showed that the bank "does not produce an article," meaning manufacture something, and the employees' applications were denied.
Separately, TAA applications provide mini-chronicles of what some U.S. workers are facing in the labor force.
Take, for instance, a request for help by some claims and customer service workers at insurer Aetna in 2012. The Aetna employees wrote: "We were sent emails asking if we would be willing to go to India, Manila and the Philippines to train workers to take over our jobs in claims and customer service. We have documentation that our jobs were eliminated due to outsourcing."
AT&T employees seeking TAA help in 2013 wrote: "Offshore contract firm has won the contract to provide IT services for IT operations. Workers performing this work now for AT&T have been declared surplus."