Sen. Obama supported layoff warnings; now sees no need

Will affect contractors if budget cuts hit Jan. 2

President Obama’s administration doesn’t see the need for defense contractors to warn employees about possible layoffs from across-the-board budget cuts, but in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama railed against employers for failing to notify workers who were in danger of losing their jobs.

“The least employers can do when they’re anticipating layoffs is to let workers know they’re going to be out of a job and a paycheck with enough time to plan for their future,” Mr. Obama said in a news release on July 17, 2007, while campaigning for president.

The Obama administration said Monday in guidance from the Labor Department that federal contractors don’t need to warn their employees that they could lose their jobs because of the looming budget cuts that are slated to begin Jan. 2. The agency said it would be “inappropriate” for employers to send such warnings because the $110 billion in cuts are still speculative. Defense programs would be the target of about half of the cuts.

The Labor Department’s letter came after a Pentagon official said Defense Department contractors could be sending layoff notices days before the Nov. 6 presidential election. Some industry groups predict the budget cuts could cause as many as 1 million workers in the U.S. to lose their jobs. Lockheed Martin, for example, has told Congress it might be forced to lay off 10,000 of its 120,000 employees.

The White House is worried that thousands of those jobs would be lost in election battleground states such as Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires employers with 100 workers or more to give 60 days’ notice of a plant closing or mass layoffs. And in 2007, then-Sen. Obama urged Congress to beef up the law, arguing that employers were ignoring it and the government wasn’t enforcing it.

“For too long, employers have failed to notify workers that they’re about to lose their jobs due to mass layoffs or plant closings even though notice is required by the WARN Act,” Mr. Obama said in that news release on July 17, 2007.

That same month, Mr. Obama also said, “We must act at the federal level to close the loophole that allows employers to disregard the WARN Act without penalty. We must give the WARN Act teeth, to ensure that workers are not left in the lurch without a job or a paycheck.”

That year, Senate Democrats led by Mr. Obama, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York proposed the Forewarn Act, which would have added to the regulations by requiring 90 days notice of layoffs and expanding the number of companies under federal jurisdiction. The legislation died.

The White House did not respond to a question about the apparent inconsistency between Mr. Obama’s position five years ago and the administration’s policy guidance this week.

The chairman of House Armed Services Committee said the new guidance was politically motivated.

“People will still get laid off because of the president’s irresponsibility, but they won’t have the notice to protect themselves and their families,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” P. McKeon, California Republican.

The Defense Department faces a reduction of $492 billion over 10 years, with $55 billion in cuts due in January, unless the Obama administration and Congress can agree on an alternative. Domestic programs also would be reduced by $492 billion over the next decade. The automatic cuts are to take effect because of the failure of the bipartisan congressional supercommittee to find a way to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Wednesday he’s prepared to cancel part of Congress‘ vacation this month and call the House back into session if Senate Democrats agree to work on the looming defense spending cuts.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, Mr. Boehner said Republicans were reluctant last year to include defense spending cuts in the deal that allowed Mr. Obama to raise the debt ceiling. He said the Democrats are now blocking Republicans’ efforts to head off the cuts.

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