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Labor Chief Scalia Pivots to ‘Blue-Collar Bounceback’ From Virus

April 23, 2020, 8:19 PM

A wide range of Labor Department initiatives are helping workers in need during the pandemic, even as the economy prepares for a big rebound, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said.

“The year started with a blue-collar boom. We’re now working on the blue-collar bounceback,” Scalia said during a call Thursday.

Before highlighting his agency’s efforts on unemployment benefits, safety, and paid leave, Scalia emphasized optimism in a nod to the White House’s plan to assist states in reopening the economy. The secretary said President Donald Trump’s “reopening plan puts forward a disciplined, scientific approach for states and locales to reopen for business as it’s safe to do so.”

The White House’s three-stage “Opening Up America Again” plan has drawn criticism from leading business groups concerned that it could create increased liability issues for employers. Some governors have rejected the Trump administration’s focus on returning to work because of a lack of testing and treatments for Covid-19.

While noting the $700 million in funding DOL has already paid to states to support their ability to process unemployment insurance claims, Scalia also offered a reminder that states won’t be paying benefits for long.

“States must take measures to ensure that payments end when recipients have the opportunity to return to work,” Scalia said.

His remarks come as a handful of Southern states have begun laying out timelines for reopening some businesses that had been ordered closed to lessen the spread of the virus. The concern about jobless benefits being paid out even after workers have resumed employment also was raised by the DOL’s Office of Inspector General in a report Thursday.

Wage Enforcement

Scalia was joined on the call by a trio of DOL agency heads who’ve been overseeing the department’s virus response on unemployment benefits, paid leave, and occupational safety.

The officials promoted their assistance to states, workers, and employers in the aftermath of complaints from worker advocates who say the department has narrowed the newly enacted virus response laws to exclude workers, such as health-care employees, from receiving paid leave. Others have called out DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not issuing an emergency standard that requires companies take steps to protect workers on the job.

Cheryl Stanton, administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, praised her team’s work on a regulation that implements the virus-relief law requiring employers with under 500 workers to provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave and family leave. Since that rule took effect April 2, the WHD has answered “tens of thousands of calls” from employees and businesses, Stanton said.

“We also affirmatively reached out when we heard that an employer had denied paid sick leave to an employee, and we educated that employer about their obligations,” Stanton said. “In many, many instances those employers did not realize what they were required to do and, once educated, did provide the paid sick leave that the employee was entitled to receive.”

But the new regulation is the subject of a lawsuit filed this month by the New York attorney general. The legal challenge asks a federal judge to set aside portions of the rule that restrict coverage to certain workers or make it more difficult for employees to qualify for leave.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com