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2/16/2006

Dept. of Labor Cuts Budget, Urges Flexibility

Source: Press Associates, Inc. (PAI)

WASHINGTON (PAI) — GOP President George W. Bush’s proposed Labor Department budget for the year starting Oct. 1 again pushes worker training “flexibility,” an idea that previously sank from sight even in the GOP-run Congress. In her Feb. 6 press conference on her agency’s proposed $54 billion spending plan, Chao highlighted what she said was an increase in DOL’s budget, and said it would go to improve workforce competitiveness.

But the budget proposals she released include a $3.2 billion increase in mandatory programs, such as unemployment benefits and black lung payments. Funding for job training, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other “discretionary” programs dropped by $400 million.

The centerpiece of DOL’s spending plan, and an idea Bush touted in his State of the Union address the week before, was workforce retraining. “We must prepare workers to compete in the 21st century economy,” Chao said.

To do that, Bush and Chao propose combining four worker training programs into one “funding stream,” and use it to pay for Bush’s “Career Advancement Accounts.” She said the $3.4 billion program would let 800,000 workers nationwide get grants of $3,000 each to retrain themselves in any way they choose in new skills for new jobs.

The states would run the accounts “and that gives governors greater flexibility to create programs” tailored to their workers, Chao added. Bush proposed the same idea last year. Congress rejected it. The AFL-CIO didn’t like it then — and doesn’t like it now.Bush’s budget has “reprehensible” cuts in programs for workers, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said. Its cuts in job training, Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers who lose jobs to subsidized imports, and lack of new funds for job safety and health and mine safety and health are “one more indication of the indifference of the Bush administration to the real needs of working families,” he added in a statement.

Chao also touted DOL’s immediate response — $274 million in grants and aid in the first weeks — to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation last August. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Feb. 2 that the January jobless rate among the half of all Katrina-hit workers who have not returned home is 26.3 percent.

Chao answered a question about how the budget would help them by saying: “A lot of the population…left in the aftermath and they were able to access assistance programs regardless of where they were. Many have found permanent jobs elsewhere and other opportunities.”

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