PORTLAND (AP) – Technology workers in South Portland who say they lost their jobs to workers in India have applied for federal benefits under a 40-year-old program intended to assist manufacturing workers displaced because of foreign competition.

The petition for benefits claims that Wright Express, a leading provider of fleet charge cards, laid off 44 employees in its information technology department. Wright Express denies that jobs were outsourced overseas.

Using overseas workers to do tasks more cheaply is a growing technique for U.S. companies and government agencies. Long common in manufacturing, it’s now being used to fill technology and service positions.

The Wright Express petitioners are among the first in Maine to join a national effort in which service-sector employees have asked for benefits under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

Last month’s application by Wright Express workers appears to be Maine’s second TAA petition filed by service-sector employees, according to records at the Maine Department of Labor. A petition filed in January by two subcontractors of a computer-aided design firm in Saco, CMD3d, was rejected by the U.S. Department of Labor, which noted that the firm performs a service, rather than producing a tangible article.

The Bush administration is hinting that it might back a bill in Congress to expand the TAA coverage to include call-center employees, engineers and other service workers who have lost jobs to outsourcing. The program pays for retraining, health insurance tax credits and other benefits. So it can provide an important cushion for workers until they find new jobs.

In their petition, the former Wright Express workers said the company, which provides credit card and vehicle tracking services, had outsourced its information technology department to India.

“I was stunned,” said Jessica Roy, a Wright Express spokeswoman. “We’re not outsourcing our IT department to India.”

Wright Express has roughly 600 employees. In January, it laid off 34 technology workers as part of a department reorganization following a four-year project to upgrade its computer platform. Those positions are no longer needed, Roy said, and the company assumes that the workers applying for trade benefits belong to that group.

Roy said some of the testing for computer platform is being done in India, but those are temporary assignments that Wright Express would not hire full-time employees to do.

AP-ES-04-15-04 0216EDT

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