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Democrat Wants Job-Training Funds to Top Great Recession Level

May 1, 2020, 10:04 AM

The top Democrat on the House labor panel is proposing a bill to nearly double the investment in workforce-training programs Congress made during the Great Recession, setting up another point of possible partisan tension as lawmakers move toward negotiations on the next major virus-relief package.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will introduce a proposal Friday to spend $15 billion on workforce-training programs, dwarfing the commitment in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act (Public Law 116-136), which featured a $345 million grant program for unemployed workers. The bill would give states funding to beef up vocational training programs and other employment services to aid the flood of newly jobless workers, a number that has now eclipsed 30 million.

Scott’s bill, which supporters will push as part of the next round of relief legislation, is an indication that some House Democrats hope to get Republicans to support a large-scale investment in job training along the lines of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Public Law 111-5). That law pumped $7.7 billion into the nation’s workforce training system to respond to the Great Recession.

“With millions of newly unemployed people looking for work, our nation’s workforce development system—which was already strained by chronic underinvestment—is facing an unprecedented test,” Scott said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law via email. “This proposal will give hard-hit states and localities the resources they need to immediately assist employers and workers during this pandemic.”

But as Democrats prepare for talks over a second CARES Act, they will have to balance the call for more job-training funds against a host of other demands, including leadership’s paramount goal of providing aid to state and local governments—for which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the price tag could run as high as $1 trillion. Senate Republicans haven’t agreed to hash out another stimulus bill any time soon, but have marked out a demand for liability protections for businesses if Democrats seek additional aid to states. That could leave little room for other priorities on both sides.

Pelosi said Thursday a vote on a second CARES Act would be the House’s top priority once lawmakers return to Washington the week of May 11.

Scott’s Plan

The top-line spending number in the Virginia Democrat’s proposal, dubbed the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act, reflects recent demands made by some House Democrats and more than 30 job-training, education, and advocacy groups.

The bill would increase funding and flexibility for states to decide how to use workforce-training resources as authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which could help workers in hard-hit industries prepare for new jobs in different fields.

“It’s really important for people to understand that programs under WIOA are woefully underfunded,” said Mary Clagett, senior director of workforce policy at Jobs for the Future, a workforce development nonprofit. “This is essential.”

Under Scott’s plan, the largest investments—each totaling more than $2.5 billion—would go toward state grants to assist people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic; youth workforce opportunity programs; and employment and training activities for incumbent workers. The bill also would expand eligibility for job-training programs to include independent contractors, gig-economy workers, and self-employed individuals.

The bill would give employers flexibility to decide how to use funding from the $2.5 billion set aside for training of workers who were not laid off during the pandemic, a piece of the bill that may sweeten the deal for Republicans.

Preparing for an Onslaught

Scott’s office has engaged GOP lawmakers in both chambers, but no Republican has publicly backed the bill.

A representative for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a statement that Alexander and Scott “have had good conversations about working together on important bipartisan priorities to help those most harmed by the shutdown of the economy.”

“As more COVID-19 testing becomes available and states start to reopen their businesses we will work to support appropriate efforts to get people back to work and back to school,” the statement added.

Workforce-development systems across the country will be “completely overwhelmed” by people looking for work once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, Clagett said, and it is important that state-level programs be given resources to prepare for an onslaught.

“We need to get funding for these programs out the door as quickly as we can, so workforce systems can be ready to go,” said Seth Harris, a former top Labor Department official under the Obama administration.

Apprenticeship Component

Before the pandemic, members of both parties were negotiating a reboot of the law governing federal job-training programs, but talks stalled.

Negotiations over reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act hit a snag over the White House’s plan to establish industry-recognized apprenticeships, a program that would give businesses greater say over credentialing standards. Republicans supported including the new program in the bill, but Democrats balked.

Scott’s proposal sets aside $500 million for the DOL’s long-established registered apprenticeship program and prohibits that funding from being used to support President Donald Trump’s concept for an alternative apprenticeship system. That could spell trouble for including a big-ticket commitment to workforce training in a second CARES Act.

Democratic and Republican appropriators previously declined to provide funding for Trump’s industry-recognized model, due in part to concerns over how it would affect registered apprenticeships in addition to a million-dollar funding misstep.

Based on that, Democrats on the House labor committee don’t believe the provision in Scott’s bill banning funding for the White House’s system would be reason for the proposal to be excluded from CARES Act 2 talks, a Democratic aide told Bloomberg Law. A rule to implement Trump’s model takes effect May 11.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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