Worker Transition & Global Climate Change

A Pew Center report series on the economics of climate change has identified ways in which economic modeling can more reliably project the costs of greenhouse gas reduction policies. These studies show that better model design — for instance, more realistically portraying technological progress and flexibility in the economy — can yield substantially lower projections for the costs of addressing climate change. They provide strong evidence that a rational climate policy that sets realistic short-, medium-, and long-term goals can achieve significant environmental gains while minimizing economic costs.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that the costs of addressing climate change are likely to fall disproportionately on certain industries, communities, and workers, and to explore ways to minimize these adverse impacts. This report draws from past worker transition efforts to recommend ways the government can best assist workers who may suffer economic dislocation as a result of climate change policies. A Pew Center report released simultaneously examines potential impacts on U.S. communities, and a future Pew Center report will evaluate competitiveness issues.

In the case of worker transition, the government has considerable experience assisting workers adversely affected by policy choices and market forces. Author Jim Barrett draws lessons from these government programs and outlines the building blocks of a worker transition program that could assist workers adversely affected by climate change policies. The report recommends that such a program include:

  • Substantial retraining and/or education for laid-off workers;
  • Substantial income support for program participants;
  • A bridge to retirement for workers nearing retirement age that maintains their standards of living and retirement benefit levels;
  • Maintenance of laid-off workers’ health and pension benefits until they find suitable employment;
  • Rapid response programs to ensure prompt service provision, and avoidance of detailed eligibility requirements;
  • Advance notice of layoffs when possible;
  • Work with unions to inform workers about program availability and to administer services;
  • Performance standards that avoid the unintended consequences of the overly simplistic standards used in the past; and
  • Requirements and funding for assessments of the program’s effectiveness by comparing outcomes for participants and non-participants, and allowing for mid-course corrections.

Clearly, some steps recommended in these reports will require funding. As policies to address climate change are developed, revenue streams from related fees (e.g., permit fees or auction revenues) could be used to assist with these programs. Addressing climate change through sound policy will make it possible to achieve our environmental objectives while shielding workers and communities from potential economic harm. Pew Center and the author wish to thank Susan Teegarden, Andrew Hoerner, Robert Ginsburg, Ev Ehrlich, Yolanda Kodryzycki, and Les Leopold, who offered helpful comments on previous drafts of this report. The author also would like to thank Brigit O’Brien and Terrel Hale for their research assistance.

Executive Summary

With most scientists and politicians agreeing that human-induced climate change is a potentially serious problem, the question of how nations respond to it, if at all, now seems to hinge on the perceived costs of action and inaction. Several attempts have been made to estimate the cost to the U.S. economy of reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. While there remains substantial debate over the net costs (or benefits) of various policy alternatives, there is little debate over the fact that reducing emissions will have potentially negative impacts for certain sectors of the economy and their workers. Any major reduction in carbon emissions in the United States will almost certainly require a decline in demand for fossil fuels, and, therefore, will result in employment losses in the coal, petroleum, and electricity industries, and possibly other sectors as well.

The question often arises: What policy options are available to address the needs of impacted workers?

The United States has substantial experience with programs aimed at helping workers dislocated both by policy choices, such as trade agreements and environmental regulations, and by market forces, such as the ongoing shift away from manufacturing and toward a service-based economy. The Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program established in the 1960s was designed to aid workers displaced by the effects of international trade, while the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) was aimed at workers displaced for any reason. The experiences of these programs can provide valuable guidance for the design of policies aimed at dealing with workers displaced by climate change policies. In 2000, both programs were subsumed by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which would serve workers dislocated by climate policies if they were to be laid off today.

Examinations of TAA and JTPA raised important questions about the effectiveness of their training components. Studies have found that the majority of participants who subsequently found jobs were employed in occupations unrelated to their training programs. A closer look at the evidence shows that there can be sizable gains from retraining displaced workers, with some studies finding significant benefits through higher wages at reemployment. The evidence also appears to indicate that the quality of training may be as important as the quantity.

In addition to training and education, another important aspect of worker displacement programs has been income support for participants. Both TAA and JTPA are meant to provide support for their participants, although many, including the vast majority of JTPA participants, received little or no support. Aside from the obvious hardships this can impose on workers and their families, it also had substantial impacts on the ability of the programs to move workers successfully into new jobs. A study of one JTPA program found that over the first year following layoff, program participants earned about 20 percent less than displaced workers who did not join a program. While participants’ earnings recovered substantially over time, the cost of participating in the program, in terms of lost earnings over the first year, represents a substantial barrier to participation.

While some workers likely opted out of programs due to lack of income support or other reasons, some may have been discouraged from participating. The use of performance-based contracts, which pay service providers based on reemployment and wage replacement rates, can give providers the incentive to filter out the workers who are more difficult to place and who might bring averages and compensation down. TAA had substantial problems in serving its intended population as well. One audit found that the eligibility determination process arrived at an incorrect conclusion in over 60 percent of cases.

There are a wide range of lessons that can be drawn from previous programs to help inform the design and administration of a successful program to assist workers affected by climate change policies. A critical, if broad, lesson is that numerous tradeoffs exist that can make designing an effective program difficult. At the same time, some tradeoffs that are assumed to exist may not. Continuing to assume that they do can be equally limiting.

Both TAA and JTPA have tried to strike a balance between providing compensation to workers and providing incentives to leave programs as quickly as possible. For JTPA, those incentives appear to have been too strong. A large majority of eligible workers (as many as 93 percent) never entered programs in the first place. Under JTPA and now WIA, the goal of compensation has been sacrificed in the name of efficiency. However, income compensation and training appear to be complementary, so that increasing compensation can enhance training outcomes and program success. With limited resources, unfortunately, training and compensation appear to be substitutes at least in the budgetary sense.

While providing for substantial retraining is an essential element of a successful transition program, it is no guarantee of success. Despite the relatively long training programs in TAA projects, reemployment outcomes have been disappointing, due largely to inadequate job search and placement services and to mismatches between training programs and labor market demand. Careful design of training programs and the provision of job search and placement services will be critical to the success of a climate change transition program, particularly given the long tenure and deteriorated labor market skills likely to characterize many of the program’s participants.

In addition to some of the larger issues like income support, there are numerous factors in the administration of transition programs that can help determine their success or failure. Some of these issues have already been addressed in WIA. The continuous operation of WIA offices and rapid response teams can help keep the lag time between layoff and program entry low. Addressing layoffs at the earliest possible stage can increase the legitimacy of the program and help workers face the reality of permanent separation from their jobs. This approach increases participation rates and reduces the lag time between layoff and program entry.

To ensure that these workers have access to training options, two conditions must exist. First, training programs must be offered that can serve their needs. Second, training providers must have a limited ability to exclude or discourage clients who are difficult to place. If these conditions are met, it may be possible to employ performance-based standards successfully. To ensure that programs suitable for the hard to place are available, a successful program needs to offer sufficient incentive to trainers to offer such programs. One approach is to offer higher payments for placements of the difficult to place. Rather than offer payment based on the number of people placed, a system could offer payment based on the expected intensity of training required. This approach would offer increased incentives for training providers to design programs for workers who need the most help.

A more fundamental issue is the appropriateness of a program explicitly designed to serve one type of worker and not another. To a laid-off worker, and possibly to society as a whole, it may seem arbitrary to deny or approve benefits based on whether it can be proven that climate change policies contributed to the layoff. Climate change policies may be only one of a combination of causes leading to a layoff, particularly for industries already in decline. Any eligibility restriction based on climate change policies will thus be difficult to implement.

The following elements appear critical to the success of a transition program aimed at helping workers dislocated by climate change policies or other causes:

  • Substantial retraining and/or education should be available for laid-off workers.
  • The program should provide substantial income support for program participants.
  • For those workers nearing retirement age, the program should provide a bridge to retirement that maintains their standard of living as well as their retirement benefit levels.
  • The program should maintain health and pension benefits of laid-off workers until they find suitable reemployment.
  • To help ensure that services can be provided as quickly as possible, rapid response programs should continue to be employed, and detailed eligibility requirements should be avoided whenever possible.
  • The program should encourage advance notice of layoffs when possible.
  • The program should work with unions to inform workers about the availability of programs and to administer services.
  • The program should establish performance standards that avoid the unintended consequences of the overly simplistic performance standards used in the past.
  • The program should require, and provide funding for, assessments of the program’s effectiveness by comparing outcomes for participants and non-participants, and allow for mid-course corrections.