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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

House chairman offers a tougher WARN Act

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The powerful chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee yesterday submitted his proposal to better assure workers are given notice before they lose their jobs in mass layoffs or business shutdowns.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) became the second member of the U.S. House to introduce legislation to reform the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, known as the WARN Act, a 19-year-old federal law that requires many employers to provide 60 days' notice before layoffs.

Mr. Miller's bill was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo).

"These are really extraordinary improvements over existing legislation," Miss Kaptur said during an interview yesterday. "There are more teeth in this [bill] to treat the workers with more respect."

After a Blade investigation in July highlighted the WARN Act and its shortcomings, a host of key politicians in Washington have addressed the need to reform the law. Among those who have responded are Democratic U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Hillary Clinton of New York, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Barack Obama of Illinois, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and U.S. Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from New York.

The Blade's four-part investigation showed that the WARN Act is so full of loopholes and flaws that employers repeatedly skirt it with little or no penalty.

The series showed that in crafting the WARN Act, Congress didn't charge the Department of Labor with enforcing the law. Instead, displaced workers must take their former employers to court to uphold their rights under the law.

An analysis of 226 WARN Act lawsuits filed by employees showed that judges threw out more than half, citing loopholes in the law.

"Everyone on the [House Education and Labor] committee is familiar with the Blade's excellent work on this," Miss Kaptur said yesterday. "The Blade has really done the country a favor in helping to highlight the importance of this legislation and to draw national attention to it."

Mr. Miller's bill - called The Early Warning and Health Care for Workers Affected by Globalization Act - would overhaul the existing WARN Act by increasing the notice period from 60 to 90 days, making the law apply to more employers, increasing financial penalties for violators, and empowering the Department of Labor to bring lawsuits on behalf of employees.

In addition, it covers part-time employees and groups of 100 or more workers laid off by one employer at multiple job sites.

The legislation also extends COBRA health coverage for recipients of trade adjustment assistance, allowing workers who are 55 or older or employees with more than 10 years of service to an employer to use COBRA coverage until they are eligible for Medicare.

Miss Kaptur said Mr. Miller's new proposal has support from the "highest levels" of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.).

"There is a significant amount of momentum that has built for this measure," Miss Kaptur said.

Ms. Pelosi, in a statement yesterday, said: "For too long, the Bush Administration has ignored the needs of workers who are left unemployed through no fault of their own. Chairman Miller and Congresswoman Kaptur have been relentless champions for the cause of working men and women, and the new legislation incorporates those concerns."

Alex Conant, a White House spokesman, had no immediate comment last night on Mr. Miller's WARN Act proposal, but defended the President's record on helping workers.

"The President has aggressively fought for and delivered tax relief for all taxpayers resulting in economic growth and job creation," he said. "The best thing Congress can do to help workers and those seeking work is to keep taxes low to grow our economy and create new jobs."

Mr. Miller's bill shares some characteristics with a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Mr. Brown and a bill in the U.S. House by Mr. McHugh.

Mr. Brown's bill is co-sponsored by Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who are vying for the Democratic nomination for president.

The proposals introduced by Mr. Brown and Mr. Hugh, both called the FOREWARN Act, would lengthen the notification period required before a plant closing or mass layoff, increase penalties for violators, require more companies to provide notice before layoffs, and allow the Department of Labor and state attorneys general to represent workers in lawsuits.

Julie Hurwitz, the former executive director of the Sugar Law Center, a Detroit-based nonprofit legal center which advocates for workers in WARN Act cases, said she is "heartened" by the congressional efforts to reform the law.

"These are all sorely needed revisions that have to be made, particularly given the history of those loopholes that have existed in the original statute giving employers all kinds of wiggle room to essentially set their own agendas and still not be held accountable under the original version of the WARN Act," Ms. Hurwitz said.

Still, Ms. Hurwitz wants lawmakers to go a step further and address increasingly common tactics used by employers to evade their WARN Act duties.

"I would love to see somebody grapple with the use of releases or waivers that are now quite frequently used by employers to get out from any WARN Act liability or responsibility," Ms. Hurwitz said.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com, or 419-304-1680.



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