Karen Karrer is disgusted with the system designed to help people like her.
When the 46-year-old Fort Wayne woman found out in late 2010 that Navistar International Corp. was moving local operations – and her job – to the Chicago area, she immediately started planning her second career. Karrer knew that probably meant going back to college or getting another type of training.
Like many of her co-workers, Karrer pinned her hopes on the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Under TAA, states distribute federal money to workers who lose jobs because their employers lose market share to cheaper imports or move work out of the country.
We were told that once this was approved, the floodgates of help would open, Karrer said.
Instead, the 22-year Navistar employee has negotiated a confusing maze that includes three failed attempts to create an acceptable training plan. An official from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development who met this month with Karrer and four former co-workers with similar stories of frustration has promised to help.
But those affected by the red tape are only cautiously optimistic. Their brush with bureaucracy seems symbolic of the challenges the unemployed face when they turn for help to government programs such as unemployment and Medicaid.
The Navistar employees believe local staff, including WorkOne Northeast CEO Kathleen Randolph, are genuinely trying to help but are being given poor guidance by staff in Indianapolis.
Dennis Wimer, Workforce Development’s deputy commissioner of field operations, has promised to investigate the issues, address the individual cases and follow up with statewide staff training, as needed.
Randolph, who invited Wimer to the June 28 meeting, said she welcomes the prospect of receiving written guidelines her staff could follow to virtually assure future training plans are quickly approved.
Gayle Goodrich, a Navistar engineer who expects to lose her job in December, was also at that meeting. She believes Wimer will address the specific problems brought up. But she’s not confident that applicants from other companies will experience an easier process as a result.
But what are they going to do for everyone else in Indiana? she asked.
The workers’ expectations have risen and fallen in the month since that meeting, which was spurred by attorneys with the National Employment Law Project. At first, they were excited by Wimer’s willingness to look into the situation. As time went by, the plans again seemed to be bogged down in the system. Until last week, when Commissioner Scott Sanders called Mike Coil, a union official, after regular business hours to apologize for his staff’s flawed response to the Navistar workers.
Sanders followed up with an email the next day with an apology for the confusion and frustration and a promise to talk to Labor Department officials to see how we can rectify the situation.
Wimer told The Journal Gazette in a phone interview that these were the first complaints he’s received about the TAA program and how his staff administers it.
You don’t know what you don’t know until someone tells you, right? he said, adding that now issues can be addressed. Let’s move things forward. Let’s make things happen.
TAA benefits aren’t automatically available to the unemployed. Groups of workers have to apply for certification, making a compelling case that they lost jobs because of foreign trade.
WorkOne implemented a rapid response after Navistar announced plans to move the jobs out of Fort Wayne. Meetings with the union leadership included information about the TAA program.
The Navistar engineers and their union – United Auto Workers Local 2911 – successfully made their case by showing that the company moved some work to India and Mexico in addition to Illinois. They received official TAA approval in October. Group certification lasts indefinitely, but eligibility for specific benefits varies.
Benefits available under the program include job training, job search and relocation allowances, income support and assistance with health care insurance costs.
Individual workers must apply for help and establish there aren’t open positions for people with the degree and work experience they already have. To receive training money, they have to document what type of training they’d receive and show that a market exists for workers with those skills.
Karrer, whose last day of work was Dec. 2, 2011, holds a two-year degree in computer-aided drafting and design technology, but she worked on a Navistar-exclusive software program in the powertrain department. She hasn’t used CAD for 23 years, so she can’t rely on those rusty skills to find a new job.
She’s willing to go back to school for a four-year engineering degree, but she was told by local WorkOne staff that TAA money won’t pay for it as long as there’s a chance her two-year engineering degree might get her one of the engineering openings listed on Indiana Career Connect.
Karrer contends the job website is fraught with problems, including some duplicate listings. Employers looking for engineers don’t all want the same thing. Chemical, electrical, mechanical and software engineering jobs are significantly different, she said. And some positions simply require four years of education instead of two.
A discouraging saga
Karrer decided she wouldn’t try to compete with better-qualified engineers who are looking for work in this area.
She liked the idea of becoming a veterinary technician, so she assembled the paperwork required for a training grant application. She had to write an essay, interview three potential training providers, such as Harrison College and the Purdue University Veterinary Technology program, and supply a training plan from each with a breakdown of costs. She also had to interview three prospective employers to prove there’s a market for people with those skills.
I jumped through all the hoops and did everything they asked me to do, Karrer said.
WorkOne staff withdrew her application from consideration, telling her it was bound to be rejected.
In an interview last week, Randolph said she wasn’t aware of the details of Karrer’s case. But the WorkOne CEO said getting training plan approval has been more challenging since the state decided to centralize that decision-making process about 1 1/2 years ago.
Before that, a state-employed person in each region reviewed training applications. Randolph said applications were approved more quickly under the old system because the reviewers had a better understanding of the region’s economy and individual applicants.
The advantage of the new system, she said, is that applications filed throughout Indiana are probably being treated in a more consistent manner. Randolph said she has not asked state officials to revert to the old approval process.
Undaunted by the withdrawal of her first training plan, Karrer decided to pursue another direction. She assembled a training plan to pursue a four-year criminal justice degree. That, too, was withdrawn.
For her third application, Karrer requested financial help to earn a four-year engineering degree. Again, it was withdrawn before being reviewed in Indianapolis.
Karrer said she received various explanations for her applications being withdrawn, including: She wasn’t out of work long enough. Her plan didn’t build on her two-year degree or previous work experience. And her résumé wasn’t good enough – even though she’d attended two résumé-writing workshops at the local WorkOne office and had her résumé reviewed and approved by local staff.
The rules are: They make up the rules as they go. Anything they can hit on, they use to reject it, she said. They told me it wasn’t just me. They said they were withdrawing a lot of applications.
Doug Barker, a former Navistar lead vehicle engineer, lost his job last December, too.
The 48-year-old Berne man worked for Navistar for 18 years. He also has a two-year degree. But he hasn’t applied for TAA benefits.
I’ve heard horror stories, he said, adding that a couple of dozen co-workers have followed the same path. Once we saw people like Karen become distraught, we stood down. I don’t want to go through her misery.
Getting it straight
Goodrich, the Navistar engineer, hasn’t applied for TAA benefits because she’s still working. But as the person who handles pension and insurance benefits for UAW Local 2911, she’s had a front-row seat to the process.
She believes the local staff has been responsive to Navistar workers’ complaints.
I think they’re as frustrated as we are with this system, Goodrich said.
Karrer agreed, saying she has empathy for local WorkOne staff, which she described as being overwhelmed and under-trained.
Wimer said he tried to keep a totally open mind while listening to local clients’ concerns and hopes to identify core issues.
I don’t want to throw a hammer down on one specific thing yet – or five things, he said.
Any situation, he said, has more than one side.
Wimer said he devoted two hours on a recent day to digging into individual Navistar worker cases. A spokesman for the agency confirmed these cases are at the top of the pile.
The challenge, they said, is that TAA benefits are structured to fit each individual situation. Two employees who worked side-by-side doing the same job for 20 years might not qualify for the same benefits if, for example, one had a two-year degree and the other a four-year degree. It’s impossible, they said, to identify a glitch with one application and apply the remedy broadly.
Joe Frank, the agency’s spokesman, suspects the Navistar workers developed unrealistic expectations – both good and bad – based on the experience of others who’ve applied for TAA benefits.
Federal officials wrote guidelines for how the TAA program should operate. Indiana officials do their best to follow those rules and distribute the money for training and other expenses, Frank said.
In the long run, he said, our goal is (higher) employment.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, only two of five former Navistar employees who met with Wimer had had their issues mostly resolved, said Coil, the union leader.
Most of them are still unaddressed, he said.
Navistar’s TAA certification covers about 1,500 local workers, including supervisors and engineers. As far as Coil knows, the total number of TAA training plans officially approved for the group is zero.