WASHINGTON – Hundreds of workers who were laid off by the bankrupt solar firm that received $528 million in taxpayer support are eligible for additional federal aid, the Labor Department has ruled.
The potential benefits for laid-off Solyndra workers would fall under a program known as "trade adjustment assistance." The taxpayer-backed benefits are supposed to help workers who lost their jobs presumably because production was shifted overseas.
In a Nov. 18 decision, the Labor Department ruled that former Solyndra employees meet the criteria. Echoing an argument that has been made for months by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other Obama administration officials, the department determined that Solyndra's workers were hurt by foreign competition.
"Customer and aggregate United States imports of articles like or directly competitive with the cylindrical solar panel systems by Solyndra LLC have increased," the department said, adding that the imports "contributed importantly" to the firings.
Michael Jaffe, an officer in the Office of Trade Adjustment Assistance, determined that "all workers" at Solyndra who lost their jobs since September 2010 are eligible to apply for the aid.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has been critical of the TAA program, had for months warned that former Solyndra workers might sign up for the benefits. His office decried the Labor Department's recent decision.
"This is an embarrassment and shows that TAA is a program of questionable merit," Hatch spokeswoman Julia Lawless said in an email Tuesday.
But the Obama administration has argued that, while they are disappointed with the outcome of Solyndra, the company fell victim to global market forces -- officials say a glut of solar panels out of China, coupled with slackening demand in Europe, drove down the price of panels and helped put Solyndra out of business.
But congressional Republicans investigating the Solyndra loan guarantee note that questions were being raised about Solyndra's finances early on.
Chu conceded at a recent congressional hearing that he doesn't expect taxpayers to get much of their money back from Solyndra as the company goes through bankruptcy proceedings.