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November 22, 2019

Fair warning: Bill would strengthen worker protections: Trone proposing legislation in wake of mill closure

Credit: Cumberland Times-News, Jeffery Alderton

CUMBERLAND — U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) is proposing legislation that would strengthen worker protections by providing them with more advanced notice when a business plans layoffs or closures.

“This bill was introduced in the House and Senate in response to help workers in the future based on what happened at the Luke mill,” Trone said during a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.

Verso Corp.’s Luke paper mill closed in June, eliminating 700 jobs. The company announced the closure in April.

The Fair Warning Act would require a 90-day notice to affected employees. It is being proposed by Trone, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

The legislation would modify the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, requiring an employer to provide employees with information about worker’s rights and benefits and services that are available to them.

That information would include details concerning unemployment compensation, health benefits and on-site access to rapid response teams.

In addition to strengthening the requirements, the proposed bill also includes administration and enforcement.

The legislation marks the latest effort by Trone, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to help displaced mill workers.

They worked to secure Trade Adjustment Assistance that was approved in July by the U.S. Department of Labor after the application for the federal assistance was sought by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Greg Harvey, president of United Steel Workers Local 676, which represents more than 500 of the former mill workers, welcomed the legislation.

“Anytime you have the ability to prepare sooner for anything as catastrophic as the closing of the Luke mill would be priceless,” said Harvey, who continues to man his Westernport office to assist the workers.

Harvey said the only reason Verso gave a 60-day notice before closing was because that’s what the law required.

“Ninety days might seem like a lot to a company that is shutting down, but to a displaced worker it’s not much as he’s trying to figure out where he will find his next meal,” Harvey said.

“You see what we had to accomplish in 60 days — actually 30 the way it worked out — people scattered all over the place trying to find jobs and figuring out what they’re going to do,” he said.

Trone said “we’re going to have very good support” working with the Senate and the House of Representatives in legislative proposals that “focus on helping people instead of all the crazy things going on in Washington.”

“We have to ensure that workers get a fair shake,” said Trone, noting that the bill will require companies to spell out the particulars of severance packages and “put some teeth into the rules” for enforcement and penalties for non-compliance.

Trone said he and state, county and municipal leaders worked together to aid workers once the shutdown of the Luke mill was announced.

“When this happened, we tried to move fast,” he said. “I’m a businessman and workers are the most important asset. I talked to the Verso CEO three times. We did what we could but it was not enough to save the mill.”