An interesting thing happened along the way to November’s election: Public officials in Washington, including members of President Bush’s administration, have started to heed the noisy complaints of laid-off IT workers who are left behind when companies send software programming jobs overseas.
The evidence: There’s a move afoot to extend benefits devised for auto and other laid-off factory workers to software programmers.
Since 1974, manufacturing workers who lose their jobs to overseas competition are entitled to services and benefits under the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, including a job search allowance, up to two years of training and education, up to two years of additional unemployment benefits, and health-care tax credits. All told, displaced workers can receive about $50,000 worth of benefits.
There’s a new class-action lawsuit making its way through the U.S. Court of International Trade that seeks the same benefits for IT workers whose jobs have been sent offshore to countries like India and China. But the lawsuit could become moot if a movement in Congress to extend such benefits to service workers makes its way to the president’s desk. A Senate bill has about one-quarter of senators signing on as cosponsors. Another bill is pending in the House. And in recent testimony before Senate committees, the White House’s trade representative indicated Bush would support such a move, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Information Technology Association of America, the computer industry’s lobbyist in Washington, also supports the idea, says Executive Director Harris Miller.
With offshore outsourcing a campaign issue in the November presidential election, it’s not a complete surprise that the idea of benefits for out-of-work programmers is getting such traction. But at the same time, it’s not as if this issue has never come up before. IT workers, in fact, have applied for job retraining benefits under the TAA program. But to date, the Labor Department has rejected nearly every programmer and high-tech worker who has applied for TAA benefits, arguing that in order to qualify, a worker must have produced a tangible article. Software is not a tangible, according to Labor officials.
“We think the Labor Department is stuck in the old world,” says lawyer Michael Smith of Ramirez and Smith in Spokane, Wash. Smith is lead lawyer on the suit representing 35 former IBM workers. “They say an article is something that comes out of a factory. They haven’t updated their definition to include software. In the information age it is incumbent upon them to do so.”
Smith, who was a software programmer himself for 15 years before deciding to go to law school, describes his case as a personal calling. “I wonder how long will Americans allow our free trade policies to destroy our job prospects,” he says, adding he doesn’t care if it’s the lawsuit or legislation that gets IT workers their benefits?as long as they get them.
In court so far, the Justice Department denies the government unfairly rejected federal benefits for the plaintiffs. Smith says he expects a decision in the case as soon as August, and certainly by November.
That suit could be big news for outsourced IT workers?if politicians don’t get there first.