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DOL Watchdog ‘Surprised’ by Workplace Virus-Safety Citations

June 1, 2020, 8:08 PM

The Labor Department’s inspector general said his office is investigating more than 300 cases of suspected unemployment insurance fraud and will soon review enforcement of occupational safety standards during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Inspector General Scott Dahl briefed House lawmakers Monday on his office’s ongoing efforts to review the DOL’s actions during the pandemic. He faced repeated questions from Democratic members of a subcommittee about allegations of rampant unemployment claims fraud and concerns from unions and worker advocates that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hasn’t done enough to protect workers from the coronavirus.

Dahl said he was “very surprised” to learn that OSHA had issued only one citation arising from hundreds of virus-related inspections as of late May. “This is something that we’re planning on turning our attention to—to look at their enforcement activities and seeing if they are following their standards and what can be done to make them more efficient and effective,” Dahl added.

He told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Government Operations panel that his office would first evaluate OSHA’s guidance for employers before turning its attention to the agency’s enforcement efforts.

Dahl said the “enormous expansion” of unemployment insurance benefits under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in late March—a rise of more than $260 billion from pre-virus levels—"substantially increases fraudulence, with criminals easily exploiting system vulnerabilities.”

He cited a case now under investigation by the Office of Inspector General involving three dozen health-care workers whose identities had allegedly been stolen and used to file fraudulent jobless claims in multiple states.

“This is just one example of more than 300 investigative matters involving UI fraud we are aggressively pursuing,” Dahl said.

He noted his office issued a fraud alert to state workforce agencies and the Justice Department about “scammers taking advantage of people applying for benefits by falsely offering to help them file claims, only to misuse their personal and financial information in stealing these payments.”

The OIG has been coordinating with federal prosecutors, state labor agencies, and local law enforcement to combat fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits, Dahl added.

DOL has been supporting states in responding to the more than 40 million new unemployment claims filed since mid-March. The department has emphasized that states should be on the lookout for criminal schemes that prey on vulnerable state unemployment systems.

For instance, the Maine Department of Labor stopped processing new jobless claims for two days last week to focus on investigating fraudulent filings.

Emphasis on OSHA Citations

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, questioned in opening remarks why the panel was holding the virtual briefing, asking for an end to “these unsanctioned kinds of hearings.” Republican members didn’t ask a single question during the briefing.

Democratic members pressed Dahl on steps he could take to save the lives of workers at meat-processing plants and nursing homes who have been exposed to Covid-19 infection at their workplaces. The Democratic members wanted to know why OSHA takes up to six months following an inspection to issue citations.

“When they give my car a parking ticket, they do it right there on the spot,” said. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

Questions about workplace safety enforcement came after OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt informed Congress last week that out of 392 virus-related inspections as of May 27, only one had been closed with a citation—for an alleged recordkeeping violation.

The watchdog’s initial assessment of OSHA’s guidance for employers should be released by the end of June, Assistant Inspector General Elliot Lewis told the panel.

Congressional Democrats and union leaders have repeatedly criticized OSHA for not issuing an emergency temporary standard for employers covering airborne transmission of pathogens. DOL leaders have said OSHA can enforce the general duty clause of the Occupational and Safety Act, which requires employers to maintain work sites free of known hazards.

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

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

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