Labor Policies to Enable Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition

As fossil fuel workers grapple with the decline of community-sustaining industries, a new joint report by RFF and Environmental Defense Fund assesses how workforce development policies and labor standards can protect workers and lay the groundwork for future success.



March 16, 2021


Wesley Look, Molly Robertson, Jake Higdon, and Daniel Propp



Reading time

2 minutes

Executive Summary

Workers and communities that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel economies—including the production of coal, oil, and natural gas—are likely to experience disruptions in the status quo as society addresses climate change through the advancement of clean energy alternatives. This report reviews a range of federal (and some state) workforce development policies and labor standards designed to ensure fairness for workers and communities during this transition to a low-carbon economy—what some refer to as “just transition.”

This report is one of a series that has examined various tools to support workers and communities in transition, including economic development policies, infrastructure and environmental remediation policies, and the array of policies that make up the broader social safety net in the United States. Here, we focus on programs and policies that explicitly seek to aid workers in securing stable, family-supporting jobs. We examine programs led by the Department of Labor, the Treasury Department, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies. We identify the administrative structures, funding levels, and major mechanisms through which these programs are delivered, and we review evidence of their effectiveness where possible. (Please see Section 6 for a detailed description of individual policies and programs.)

For ease of analysis, we group programs into two main categories: workforce development and labor standards. Both policy types aim to support workers, but they differ in that the former tends to transfer federal funds (in the form of various services and supports) to help workers build new skills and secure jobs, while the latter tends to establish legally enforceable protections for workers.

The workforce development programs we study leverage four primary activities:

  • Career services: programs that help workers find and retain employment, including job search assistance, interview and résumé preparation, job retention training, and job placement.
  • Job training: capacity building for workers, such as classroom vocational training, on-the-job training, and apprenticeships; as well as “soft” skills development (language proficiency, time management, financial literacy), basic education, ad hoc technical assistance, and mentoring.
  • Direct financial and ancillary supports: programs that help workers undertake training and job search by providing direct financial supports, in the form of cash payments to compensate for lost wages, and/or ancillary supports, such as child care, subsidized housing, or substance abuse therapy.
  • Research and programmatic technical assistance: initiatives that leverage existing government research and logistical capacity to support various workforce development efforts.

The labor standards we review generally target four major areas:

  • Fair compensation and benefits: minimum thresholds for workers’ pay and benefits.
  • Unionization protections: standards that enhance workers’ ability to participate in, and have a meaningful impact on, unions, which have played an important role in empowering workers to negotiate better pay, benefits, and conditions from employers.
  • Transition support: policies that specify the treatment of, or resources made available to, workers transitioning between jobs—to reduce long-term unemployment and the hardships associated with temporary unemployment.
  • Occupational safety: standards that require certain working conditions and reduce workplace hazards for employees.

Based on our review of major federal and selected state labor policies, we draw the following 11 insights that can help inform future policymaking for communities affected by a long-term shift away from fossil energy.

To read the full report, click "Download" above.


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