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Published: Monday, 7/30/2007

Many laid-off workers knew little of protective law

Efforts try to educate employees about WARN

BY STEVE EDER AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Many workers who abruptly lost their jobs in a major layoff or plant closing say they had little or no knowledge that there was a federal law meant to protect them.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said he wants that to change.

Earlier this month he introduced legislation to overhaul the 19-year-old Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, known as the WARN Act, which requires many employers to give 60 days' notice before a plant closing or mass layoff.

Mr. Brown's bill includes a number of measures to broaden the law, including a mandate for the Department of Labor to provide educational materials about employee rights and employer responsibilities under the law.

He wants to require the U.S. Department of Labor to make information about the WARN Act available online, which it already does, and also make the material available in written form "for distribution by employers."

"The Labor department must ensure that employers notify workers in clear, concise language so that they can get the assistance to which they're entitled," Mr. Brown told The Blade in a statement.

READ MORE: Effects and reform of the WARN Act

Tova Perlmutter, the executive director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that assists workers in litigating WARN Act cases, said more must be done to educate employers and workers about their rights and obligations under the law.

"There's no doubt in my mind that more employers understanding the law better would result in more employees getting the notice that they deserve and should have in order to make plans for moving ahead in their lives," Ms. Perlmutter said.

The education should take place on both the federal and state levels, through the Labor Department and state-funded "rapid response" programs, which are designed to assist displaced workers, Ms. Perlmutter said.

Ms. Perlmutter said many of the displaced workers who phone her organization are referred by state "rapid response" coordinators, who sometimes let laid-off employees know that the WARN Act exists.

When the workers contact the Sugar Law Center, Ms. Perlmutter said, "they don't necessarily know to what extent they can be protected by it or to what extent it was violated or not."

The Labor Department has a WARN fact sheet, and guides for workers and employers on its Web site, but it does not distribute written materials to employers or workers, an agency spokesman said.

In addition to educating employers and employees about the law, Senator Brown's bill also lengthens the notice period before a layoff to 90 days, increases penalties for violators, requires small companies to comply with the law, and empowers the Department of Labor and state attorneys general to bring lawsuits on behalf of workers.

Mr. Brown's bill, dubbed the FOREWARN Act, has a list of co-sponsors that includes two Democratic candidates for president -- Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois -- as well as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Since the WARN Act took effect in 1989, there have been several calls for expanding the law to better educate employers and workers.

Twice, the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, has studied the WARN Act and found confusion about the law among employers.

The GAO's 1993 study found that one-third of about 250 employers surveyed said they were "unclear or unaware" of specific WARN provisions. The Department of Labor reported receiving more than 20,000 calls about the law's requirements between 1988 and 1993.

In 2003, a second GAO study on the WARN Act found that, despite efforts by the Labor Department to design updated educational materials on the law, the information hasn't been widely distributed.

"The secretary of labor should make enhanced educational materials widely available to employers and employees for assistance in understanding the regulations," the report found.

A professor at Boston University who has written a book that included research on the WARN Act refers to it as "one of the failure stories of transparency" -- a word used to describe the need for "full, clear, and timely disclosure of relevant information" by governments and businesses.

Given that most workers don't know about the WARN Act, it's a "nonanswer" for the Department of Labor to say it educates workers by posting materials on the agency's Web site, said David Weil, a professor of economics at Boston University.

Mr. Weil, who is also co-director of a project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that studies government transparency policies, said it may be more effective for Congress to require the department to post information at workplaces, similar to the postings that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration must provide.

More education, combined with a longer notice period, could aid workers, especially those at nonunion firms, said Mr. Weil, who referred to the WARN Act as a "secret" despite being on the books for nearly two decades.

Tom Kummerer, an employee with National Machinery Co. in Tiffin, which was shuttered abruptly in December, 2001, heard "through the grapevine" two months after the closing that other employees were planning to sue the company for allegedly violating the WARN Act.

"That was my first awareness of anything to do with the WARN Act for us," said Mr. Kummerer, who worked for National Machinery for nearly 25 years.

The former employees sued National Machinery Co., which reopened in 2002 after an asset sale.

Nearly three years after the closing, they received a settlement of $375 each -- a small portion of what the workers felt they were owed.

Mr. Kummerer believes corporate officers or business owners should bear the responsibility of informing their employees about their rights under the WARN Act.

"Nobody made any statements to us or nobody said you can apply under the WARN Act or anything," Mr. Kummerer said.

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



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