ABOUT 1,500 Boeing workers laid off through June 2015 will be offered up to two and a half years of unemployment payments, health insurance subsidies, relocation subsidies and, for older workers, training grants. These are a level of benefits greater than ordinary insured workers, whose state and federal benefits total 54 weeks.
There is no shame in taking a good deal if the government offers you one. But the policy question remains.
The social obligations of government should be strongest for the poor, the sick, the very young and the very old. Boeing workers are generally of working age, healthy and well-paid. It is not clear why they should get a deal out of the unemployment system not available to most others.
The legal reason is that these are trade-adjustment benefits for workers who lost jobs because of foreign competition or offshoring of work. Congress put special benefits into the law as a trade-off for approving trade agreements that allow more imports.
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Politically, it made sense at the time. Economically, it never did. There is really no difference between losing one’s job because of competition from France or from Tennessee. The job is lost. The worker’s needs and options are the same, and the public support should be the same.
Workers from scores of companies around the state receive trade-adjustment benefits, but they total less than 2 percent of workers receiving benefits statewide, which raises a question of fairness. Common sense says two workers with the same earnings history who are laid off at the same time should get the same benefit.
There is also a question whether the extra benefits accomplish much. A 2012 study for the U.S. Department of Labor compared laid-off workers with trade-adjustment benefits with a similar group with ordinary benefits. Four years later, the group with ordinary benefits received less training, but they had found work sooner, were working about the same number of hours and earning more per hour.