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DOL Jobless-Aid Chief Gilbert to Retire Amid Pandemic Surge (1)

Oct. 29, 2020, 5:26 PM; Updated: Oct. 29, 2020, 8:33 PM

Gay Gilbert is retiring as head of the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Unemployment Insurance, creating a top-level vacancy at the agency tasked with guiding states through a historic, virus-induced surge in jobless-benefits claims.

She’s expected to step down near the end of 2020 and a successor hasn’t been announced, said four sources briefed on the plans. Two of the sources said Gilbert’s retirement was announced this month on a weekly call for state workforce commissioners.

Gilbert, a senior career official, has been the federal government’s point person coordinating the federal-state unemployment compensation system through unprecedented demand from millions of newly sidelined workers and a massive expansion of benefits programs for workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Gay Gilbert’s outstanding leadership and deep technical expertise have been central to the Department’s pandemic response and the states’ implementation of the CARES Act unemployment insurance provisions,” John Pallasch, DOL’s assistant secretary for employment and training, said in an emailed statement. “The Department is grateful for her years of significant contributions as she transitions into a well-earned retirement at the end of this year.”

Her position is considered difficult to fill in any climate because it requires a specific type of legal expertise in navigating the arcane landscape of how federal UI law intersects with individual state statutes. That role has been under particular duress of late, as nearly 8 million workers filed for claims in the week ending Oct. 17, DOL reported Thursday, and criminal impostors are preying on outdated state systems by filing fraudulent claims.

Gilbert, who’s run the UI division since 2009, has been advising unemployment officials this year on how to update claims processing to accommodate workers affected by Covid-19. Her office’s guidance over the past seven months detailed steps states needed to take to remain in compliance with federal virus-aid provisions that paid workers an extra $600 per week in benefits through July, provided 13 additional weeks of eligibility, and extended coverage to freelancers.

At times, that’s placed Gilbert in a tough political spot. She’s been forced to navigate a divide between Democratic lawmakers accusing Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia of narrowly interpreting virus stimulus laws to exclude certain workers, and adhering to the federal government’s approach of encouraging states to kick people off benefits when they’ve received a return-to-work offer.

The stress within her agency also played out when DOL’s Inspector General recently concluded that the department was incorrect to advise states that they could begin paying independent contractors jobless aid without first requiring earnings documentation to prove their eligibility.

The sources briefed on her impending retirement, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share information that hadn’t been formally announced, said they didn’t believe there was any political pressure placed on Gilbert to leave. Two of the sources said she had discussed retirement before the pandemic.

“The Department will follow standard protocol for filling a vacant Senior Executive Service position,” Pallasch said. “The Department will appoint an acting Administrator for any time between her retirement and the appointment of a new Administrator.”

Gilbert joined DOL in 2000 as administrator of the Employment and Training Administration’s Office of Workforce Investment before she took on the unemployment office role in 2009.

She previously spent 10 years working for the state of Ohio, overseeing workforce programs and unemployment insurance. Before that, she was an assistant city attorney for Columbus, Ohio.

(Updated with DOL statement in fourth and 10th paragraphs)

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; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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