Janesville28.2°

Benefits extensions help area residents

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JAMES P. LEUTE
March 6, 2009
— It used to be that dislocated workers could collect unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks.

But a troubled state economy and thousands of resulting layoffs have triggered a series of extensions that now make most displaced workers eligible for up to 59 weeks of traditional unemployment benefits.


The extensions are a tonic for Janesville-area workers who lost their jobs in the last year when General Motors first cut and then ended local production.


The extensions will stretch unemployment benefits to the end of this summer for some workers.


Others will have access to a federal trade assistance program and the wide variety of benefits it provides.


And still others will continue to draw a significant portion of their pay through a union-negotiated contract.


The auto sector's employment slide started in April, when GM said it would cut its second shift of sport utility vehicle production in Janesville.


The loss of half the plant's production resulted in layoff notices for 852 GM workers. Local just-in-time suppliers Lear Corp. and LSI followed with layoff notices for 336 and 132 workers, respectively.


GM later said it would end production permanently in December. The cessation meant the layoffs of 1,253 workers at GM, 371 at Lear and 159 at LSI.


With a few exceptions, local auto industry workers were laid off in two waves. The first group started collecting unemployment in July, and the second started filing in January.


State unemployment rates are capped at $363 per week, but the recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act adds another $25.


Last summer, legislation extended the duration of traditional unemployment benefits from 26 to 39 weeks.


A federal extension tied to a state's overall unemployment rate kicked in last fall. Based on its unemployment rate at the time, Wisconsin got a seven-week extension. As the state's rate continued to climb, Wisconsin received another 13-week extension, stretching benefits for most laid-off workers to 59 weeks.


So what does that mean to dislocated GM, Lear and LSI workers, all of whom are represented by the United Auto Workers?


LSI

The situation for LSI workers is the most cut-and-dried of the three employee groups. For the most part, they are eligible for 59 weekly checks.


Depending on whether they were laid of last summer or at the end of the year, their unemployment checks will stop coming in late August or in February 2010.


Lear Corp.

Displaced workers of the seating manufacturer are in a similar position as far as state unemployment benefits.


But they have another form of assistance not available to workers at LSI or GM.


The U.S. Department of Labor ruled in early 2007 that displaced Lear workers would be eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance.


TAA status is granted when workers are displaced by global competition. It pays unemployment benefits beyond the expiration of state programs and offers up to $15,000 for additional education and re-training for eligible workers.


The original Department of Labor ruling was based on the local Lear operation's loss of welding work to a facility in Canada.


Once Lear was approved for the program, any workers laid off in the future would be eligible, regardless of whether they were laid off because of foreign competition.


Workers at LSI were ruled ineligible for the same assistance last year after the Department of Labor determined that they didn't meet the program's guidelines because they didn't manufacturer a product.


Earlier this year, GM workers learned that they, too, were ineligible because the reason for their layoffs was domestic trouble rather than global competition.


GM

The automaker's workers also are eligible for 59 weeks of unemployment compensation.


But because the weekly state check is far below a normal weekly paycheck, the UAW and automaker have historically supplemented it to a level that approaches a regular paycheck.


The Supplemental Unemployment Benefit program, however, is a under review in Detroit as the automaker and UAW discuss revisions to their 2007 contract in an effort to keep the company afloat.


Sources have told The Janesville Gazette that the SUB program likely will be revised.


Under the revised program, workers with 20 or more years would be eligible for 52 weeks of full SUB pay plus 52 weeks of half SUB pay. Those with between 10 and 20 years would get 39 weeks at full SUB pay and 39 at half the level. Workers with fewer than 10 years would get 26 weeks of full SUB pay and 26 weeks at half.


The UAW and GM agreed earlier this year to eliminate a jobs bank program that historically kicked in after SUB pay expired, paying the wages of laid-off workers through the life of the contract.



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