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Job Corps’ Virus Response, Safety Targeted in Government Probes

July 2, 2020, 10:45 AM

The Labor Department vocational training program’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is under review by two different government watchdogs, documents reviewed by Bloomberg Law show.

The DOL’s Office of Inspector General is examining the Job Corps initiative as part of congressionally backed efforts to examine the ways Labor Department agencies and programs have been administered during the pandemic. The second review, conducted by the Government Accountability Office, focuses on pandemic response but also appears to have a wider scope, given that the two lawmakers who requested it first asked the agency to review program operations in October.

A June 30 GAO letter informing DOL of the review indicates that two North Carolina Republicans—House Education and Labor Ranking Member Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr—requested the GAO investigation. The nonpartisan agency examines federal programs under requests from members of Congress.

In their October request, Foxx and Burr asked the GAO to conduct on-the-ground compliance tests “in addition to assessing safety protocols,” citing a 2018 GAO report identifying 13,500 “safety and security incidents.” In an email, a GAO spokesman said the agency and the requesters changed the scope of the investigation to account for the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Jobs Corps, a taxpayer-funded program that trains at-risk youth, is historically a small part of DOL’s mission but has become a political lightning rod in recent years. Last year, the Trump administration withdrew plans to close nine Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers operated by the U.S. Forest Service after intense backlash from Congress.

The GAO letter doesn’t detail specific concerns about training centers, which paused on-site operations in March as Covid-19 cases swelled. According to the agency’s website, Jobs Corps centers are still under remote work restrictions.

In an email, a DOL spokeswoman said, “Neither Senator Burr nor Representative Foxx have contacted the Department regarding Job Corps during the pandemic.” Job Corps centers may begin reopening for on-site learning this fall, the spokeswoman said, but the plan may change based on the status of the pandemic.

Spokespeople for Foxx and Burr declined to comment.

The DOL inspector general’s office disclosed a separate inquiry, saying in a letter it will probe the department’s guidance for preventing exposure to Covid-19 at Jobs Corps centers. The letter, dated May 22, posted publicly Tuesday.

“We will review the pandemic’s impact on Job Corps Center (JCC) operations and the guidance ETA provided to JCC staff for preventing workforce and student exposures to COVID-19,” the inspector general’s office wrote.

This isn’t the first time the IG has investigated the DOL’s response to Covid-19. In April, it announced it opened a review of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s coronavirus guidance, with a full report due around September 2021.

The Job Corps was also the source of Capitol Hill tension throughout the Obama administration, when a DOL assistant secretary was hauled before Congress to explain how a $100 million budget shortfall forced the corps to stop accepting new students. That official resigned in 2013, and her replacement faced congressional scrutiny over the program’s safety after students were killed on two different Job Corps campuses.

—With assistance from Ben Penn and Jaclyn Diaz.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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