By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Hundreds of displaced workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant are now eligible for more unemployment benefits because of a U.S. Labor Department ruling that importing Russian uranium was "a major factor" in the job cuts by USEC Inc.
Issued Thursday in Washington, the ruling affects all workers — union and salaried — who have lost jobs partly or entirely at the plant since April 10, 1999, or who will lose jobs through June 15, 2002. It also applies to workers at Paducah's sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.
State unemployment insurance normally lasts six months. Federal Trade Adjustment Assistance provided by the ruling will basically extend unemployment benefits for plant workers to a year. It will also pay retraining expenses such as tuition and books for about two years, said Randy Morgan, field office assistant manager of the Department for Employment Services at Paducah.
"We have not been notified of this, but if it goes the way the program normally goes, there's money set aside for retraining people," he said. "There are many factors involved, but in most cases it would give another 26 weeks or so of unemployment insurance."
Morgan said the federal funds are funneled through the state, and workers apply at the employment office at 418 S. 6th St. Compensation, which normally covers voluntary and involuntary job cuts, has helped workers of other firms in the Paducah area, he said.
"If a person wants to take advantage of it, it's a good deal," Morgan said. "The problem is the unemployment insurance will run out before two years."
The ruling affects workers who lost jobs because of competition caused by an agreement to buy enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads. As agent, USEC is paying prices higher than the plants' production costs, and the 500 tons of Russian uranium displaces the production of one plant.
Facing serious financial trouble, USEC will cut 625 more jobs at the two plants, including about 250 at Paducah, starting July 14. That will raise the number of job losses at the plants to more than 1,100 since USEC was privatized two years ago.
USEC's board of directors is expected to meet Wednesday, and various sources have said it will decide to close one of the plants. USEC has not commented.
In his ruling, Trade Adjustment Assistance program manager Grant Beale said the Russian agreement "contributed importantly to the decline in sales or production (of USEC) and to the total or partial separation of workers of that firm."
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell said the Labor Department report is more evidence that the Russian agreement, negotiated by the Clinton administration, is "a bad deal" for Paducah plant workers. "While this package will provide valuable assistance to those affected by layoffs, it doesn't make up for the hardships unemployment brings," he said.
On Thursday, Gov. Paul Patton met with USEC officials to discuss the Paducah plant and pledge state support for its continued operation. Patton said his "very positive and frank discussion" with USEC Chief Executive Officer William "Nick" Timbers dealt with the economic factors considered for continued production at Paducah.
In a statement, Patton said Timbers expressed appreciation for community support of the plant and "had special praise for the work force. Timbers was also grateful for the help he's received from other businesses in the community."
The labor ruling culminated an investigation based on an April 24 petition filed by Paducah and Portsmouth plant locals of the international atomic workers' union known as PACE. Leaders of the union, which represents more than half the plants' employment, have been highly critical of USEC's predicament and especially the Russian pact.
Attempts to reach David Fuller, president of the Paducah local, and Richard Miller, PACE's policy analyst, failed Friday.