Just Transition plan aims to provide coal workers with support for move into new careers | SteamboatToday.com

Just Transition plan aims to provide coal workers with support for move into new careers

Twentymile Coal Mine off Routt County Road 27.
John F. Russell

CRAIG — While coal communities will be largely hurt by the transition away from coal by 2040, no demographic will be affected more by that decision than the actual workers and their families.

“Our goal for workers is to ensure the shift to a clean energy economy fulfills a moral obligation to assist impacted workers who have powered Colorado for generations,” the Transition Advisory Committee wrote in a rough draft of a Just Transition plan, which was released in early August, that includes 11 recommendations to assist workers and communities impacted by Colorado’s transition away from coal. “Workers displaced from coal-related jobs should receive the support necessary to plan effectively for their transitions and achieve new career goals that allow them and their families to thrive economically and continue to contribute to Colorado and their communities.”

In that section of the plan, the committee came up with the following recommendations:

  • Assist all interested coal transition workers in developing individual transition plans for achieving their financial, career and/or retirement goals while maintaining or achieving economic self-sufficiency.
  • Develop a package of training, job search and relocation support services, similar to the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, to help workers achieve their transition goals.
  • Assist worker transitions with temporary income and benefit assistance, including a wage and health differential benefit for most workers, and a wage and health replacement benefit as an option for workers nearing retirement.
  • Establish length-of-service requirements for coal workers to be eligible for training, job search and relocation services and income and benefit assistance.
  • Ensure that workers who accept positions with their existing employer at lower pay will qualify for the wage and health differential benefit, and that workers who choose a training program or job do not waive their right to other benefits if those initial choices do not work out for them (subject to established timeframes and eligibility requirements).

“For coal transition workers, we recommend the state provide a comprehensive set of supports to help them thrive in a future without coal. That includes assistance with career planning, mentorships and robust and flexible support for workers seeking retraining, searching for new jobs or starting new businesses,” the draft plan states. “It also includes financial assistance for those who must relocate for new jobs. And, ultimately, it includes several years of income support for those engaged in training programs or whose new jobs do not pay as well or have as good a set of benefits as the coal jobs they lost.”

What does the committee actually mean by, “assist all interested coal transition workers in developing individual transition plans for achieving their financial, career and/or retirement goals while maintaining or achieving economic self-sufficiency?”

“Successful transitions start with careful planning, and starting early — while workers are still employed in their coal-related jobs — is critical. That is why our first recommendation for workers is that they start as soon as possible planning their individual transitions,” the advisory committee said. “And when workers choose to engage in this process, the state of Colorado should be an effective and supportive partner.”

According to the committee’s recommendations, workers should have access to the widest possible range of resources to develop and implement personal employment transition plans, which should maximize their opportunities and minimize the overall cost to them, their families, their communities and local and state budgets.

“This work should begin with personalized and customized service through Colorado’s existing workforce centers,” the advisory committee said. “… The state should consider expanding the capacity of these centers or even developing additional programming if necessary to meet the needs of these workers.”

While the advisory committee seemingly pushed the state to do more regarding worker transition, the committee emphasized the process should be voluntary and worker-driven for those that want to transition to a new career.

One area of contention with the Just Transition plan is the cost for workers to search for a new career field. The advisory committee recommended in the rough draft that the plan include income and benefit support for worker transitions, including providing temporary income and benefit assistance.

What does that mean exactly?

A “Wage and Health Differential Benefit” is for eligible workers who intend to remain in the workforce. The benefit should cover all or part of the difference in income and health benefits between an individual’s previous coal-related employment and either their new employment or their income while enrolled in a job training or education program consistent with an individual transition plan.

Additionally, the duration of the wage and health differential benefit (WHDB) should depend on the worker’s age, as outlined below:

  • Workers up to 29 years old at separation would receive the benefit for three years.
  • Workers 30 to 39 at separation would receive the benefit for four years.
  • Workers 40 years or older at separation would would receive the benefit for four years, except for those with 10 or more years of service who would receive the benefit for five years.

“HB 19-1314 explicitly directed us to consider wage differential benefits as part of our draft plan. It did so, we believe, because the ‘moral commitment’ the bill made to workers was intended to include helping them and their families avoid economic hardship during the transition,” the advisory committee said. “As we already pointed out, coal jobs tend to pay well and come with very good benefit packages, and unionization levels in the industry are relatively high. People buy homes, raise families and get ahead in these jobs. These are not just jobs — for most, they are careers.”

The committee made it very clear it intends these benefits to be temporary, with self-sufficiency the ultimate goal.

“Our main focus is on workers whose planned careers are being interrupted,” the advisory committee added. “We think this is an appropriate distinction, since those who accepted employment after the closure was announced knew their length of employment would be limited. While our recommendation about individual transition plans makes sense for all, we think that expenditures for retraining, relocation and income support should be reserved for those whose careers are truly disrupted — who are employed at a facility when its closure is announced and still there when the closure happens.”

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