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Biden Taps Miami Politician to Oversee DOL’s Jobless Aid Arm (1)

July 2, 2021, 9:58 AMUpdated: July 2, 2021, 8:36 PM

President Joe Biden will nominate José Javier Rodríguez, a union attorney and former Florida state senator, to head the U.S. Labor Department agency that oversees the federal-state unemployment insurance system and other programs supporting struggling workers.

Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat who lost his re-election bid last year by a few dozen votes, will be nominated to lead DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, an agency with a critical role in helping the economy rebound from damage caused by the pandemic, the White House said Friday. His selection was first reported by Bloomberg Law.

If confirmed by the Senate, Rodríguez could bring to the national stage his ideas for restructuring unemployment benefits to close gaps for vulnerable workers. The position controls federal outreach and technical assistance to ensure state workforce agencies are complying with unemployment insurance rules.

Rodríguez used his platform in the state legislature last year to advance progressive arguments for reforming Florida’s processing of jobless benefits. That overlapped with a period when the pandemic-fueled surge in sidelined workers filing unemployment claims nationwide exposed deep flaws in state systems—and Florida was viewed by many as one of the worst in a crowded field of struggling states.

‘Lesson’ to States?

Criticism of the beleaguered Florida system brought Rodríguez before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee last year, when he testified on Capitol Hill during a hearing that examined state processing of unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

“This experience should serve as a lesson to other states,” Rodríguez told the panel, after bemoaning the lengthy wait times jobless Floridians faced. “States that shrink, starve, and ignore their unemployment systems, one day, may have their state legislators delivering such remarks. Federal oversight is needed over states’ unemployment systems, along with resources to modernize their infrastructure.”

Shortly before losing in his reelection campaign, Rodríguez was a primary author of a legislative proposal that would’ve made Florida’s unemployment benefits much more generous for workers, with larger checks and double the duration of eligibility. The bill also sought to make self-employed individuals and gig workers eligible for unemployment aid.

The vacancy atop DOL’s employment and training arm comes as it’s readying to implement $2 billion in funds designed to repair outdated unemployment insurance technology, potentially giving the federal government a greater role in state administration of claims.

The agency’s reach extends beyond jobless benefits, with an annual budget of roughly $9 billion, or about three-quarters of overall DOL appropriations. The head of ETA also is responsible for structuring the nation’s workforce development system, registering and monitoring apprenticeship programs, approving employer requests for immigrant-worker visas, and preparing the workforce for post-pandemic in-demand jobs.

Florida Pedigree

Before his single four-year term in the state senate, Rodríguez served two terms in the Florida House of Representatives for a district that covers parts of Miami-Dade County.

Throughout his time in public office, Rodríguez has maintained a second job as an attorney with union-side firm Sugarman & Susskind in Coral Gables, Fla. He’s litigated multiple cases on behalf of South Florida labor unions, including affiliates of National Nurses United and the International Longshoremen’s Association.

Rodríguez earned an undergraduate degree from Brown University and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.

His eight-year run as a state legislator ended last fall under circumstances that are now subject to a criminal prosecution. A Republican challenger defeated Rodríguez by 32 votes, while an Independent candidate, also with the surname Rodríguez, finished third, garnering more than 6,000 votes.

The state attorney’s office is now prosecuting the other Rodríguez, named Alex, and a former GOP state senator for allegedly orchestrating a sham-candidate scheme to siphon votes from José Javier Rodríguez and oust him from his seat. A trial is set to begin later this year.

(Updated with White House statement.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com