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July 14, 2010

National Employment Law Project helps unemployed navigate benefits programs


Robert Magley says he felt like he lost everything the 2008 morning he walked into a plant stripped of machinery. He was handed an indefinite layoff notice that day. Not only did his 40-hour paycheck disappear, but also his health, dental and vision benefits.

This marked the second time during the past decade that Magley, who has a two-year associate’s degree in mechanical engineering, had seen a job in Michigan’s automotive manufacturing industry evaporate. Fortunately, this time around, his foreman had been alerted to a package of retraining benefits that he shared with his co-workers.

“He told me he was going to use TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) to go back to business school, and he encouraged me to do the same,” said Magley.

New high tech equipment at Mott Community College’s main campus in Flint provides opportunities to train students to become certified cooks and chefs through a nationally recognized Culinary Arts program.
Thanks to that help, he is scheduled to graduate in December 2010 from Flint’s Mott Community College, with an associate’s degree in culinary arts.

“This time around, I wanted skills that I could use anywhere in the world,” he said of his decision to become a pastry chef. “I figured I’d go into baking; it’s something I always liked to do. Eventually, I’d like to open my own shop, be my own boss.”

TAA is a package of benefits offered through the U.S. Department of Labor to workers like Magley, who have been laid off or experienced a reduction in hours because their employers have been affected adversely by foreign trade.

Those who qualify for TAA often are entitled to weekly Trade Readjustment Allowances (TRA) after their unemployment compensation has run out in addition to support for up to two years of job retraining.

Use of TAA has expanded in Michigan - approximately 8,700 Michigan workers filed for benefits in 2009. This increase is due in part to the efforts of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which has helped the state piece together a rapid and effective response to severe job loss and economic dislocation with grants totaling $1,276,000 from the Mott Foundation.

For Magley, completing an associate’s degree would not have been possible without the combined support of TAA and extended unemployment benefits.

“To be honest, I couldn’t have finished in two years if I had to take classes full time and work,” he said. “That weekly check made the difference, especially when I was taking 21 credits last semester.”

Since starting school in 2008, Magley has maintained a 3.87 grade point average. 

“To keep your benefits, you have to maintain at least a 2.0 [GPA],” he said. “If you’re not motivated, you’re not going to make it.” 

“By having the kind of detailed exposure to the problems Michigan workers are experiencing using TAA and other programs created for them, we can better identify barriers and do something about them.”
          - Rick McHugh
That goes for applying for Trade Readjustment Allowances benefits as well. 

“It takes a lot of time and paperwork and there are plenty of hoops you have to jump through - eligibility requirements, orientation sessions, informational meetings,” Magley said. “But they (Michigan Works!) got me ready for school in two weeks so I wouldn’t miss the fall semester.”

Career Alliance, the Michigan Works! agency for the Flint region, is one of several partners working with NELP to improve the delivery of training benefits and other services for the state’s unemployed, according to Rick McHugh, staff attorney and director of NELP’s Midwest office.

In an effort to familiarize these partners with each other’s services, NELP worked with the Center for Civil Justice in the Mott Foundation’s home community of Flint to develop a “toolkit” training curriculum.

Designed to help union representatives, human service workers and anyone else who deals with benefit programs, the training has been well received, and several Michigan cities have requested presentations, according to Terri Stangle, the center’s executive director.

Much of what NELP is learning through its work in Flint and the Midwest is being shared nationally.

“By having the kind of detailed exposure to the problems Michigan workers are experiencing using TAA and other programs created for them, we can better identify barriers and do something about them,” McHugh said.

For Robert Magley, the opportunity to learn about TAA and TRA and access those benefits made a major difference in his future.

"Sure, it was hard to start over again,” he said. “But I don’t want to wake up some day and ask myself, ‘How would my life have turned out if I hadn’t taken this chance?'"