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Labor Secretary’s Early Pandemic Calls Dominated by Business (1)

Oct. 9, 2020, 9:26 PMUpdated: Oct. 9, 2020, 10:16 PM

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia‘s official calendar shows he listened to industry leaders far more often than worker representatives during the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Scalia had meetings, primarily by phone, with the chief executives of at least 16 business groups or individual companies during March compared with officials from just four unions, according to a review of his March 2020 calendar. His calendar for the first three months of the year was quietly posted on the Labor Department’s website Friday afternoon, marking the first disclosure of the labor secretary’s schedule for this year.

In the critical early weeks of the pandemic, when the virus shuttered large parts of the economy and forced many essential workers to risk their lives to report for work, Scalia received input from the leaders of Uber, the Business Roundtable—which represents America’s largest corporations—as well as trade associations for hospitals, airlines, restaurants, construction companies, and the hotel industry, among others, the records show.

Over that same month, he took calls from the presidents of North America’s Building Trades Unions, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, and Seafarers International Union. Those groups reflect a more politically moderate wing of organized labor, and their members have tended to support President Donald Trump in greater numbers than the rank-and-file of most unions.

The calendar entries don’t include dates more recent than March, nor do they present a complete picture of Scalia’s priorities or leadership choices as he worked to steer DOL through the early stages of an unprecedented unemployment and public safety crisis. But they do offer a glimpse of the outside voices who had an opportunity to shape the secretary’s perspective while his department was revamping unemployment insurance, paid-leave benefits, and workplace safety policies on the fly.

The predominance of industry-focused meetings is likely to reinforce criticism from organized labor and Democrats that Scalia’s department has unfairly prioritized corporate interests and embraced limited-government at a time when his critics contend that more forceful federal interventions were needed to defend workers’ safety and wages.

“Secretary Scalia has talked to stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds, including several unions, during the ongoing fight against COVID,” a DOL spokeswoman said in a statement. “On April 1, 2020, Secretary Scalia took part in a call with leadership from the American Nurses Association.”

Health-Care Unions Not Listed

Scalia took a call March 27 from Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, one of a number of industry groups that successfully lobbied to prevent DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing an emergency temporary standard to require the health-care sector and other industries to protect employees from Covid-19 infection. There were no health-care unions listed on the secretary’s calendar for March. The April call referenced by DOL was with ANA, a professional association that isn’t a labor union representing members in collective bargaining.

“We never met with Secretary Scalia. We never received an invitation to meet with him,” Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United, said in a statement to Bloomberg Law. “We filed our formal petition with OSHA for an emergency temporary infectious disease standard in early March and did not receive even the courtesy of a response until mid-to-late April when OSHA rejected it.”

Cortez added: “More than 216 RNs are dead from Covid-19 because Secretary Scalia and President Trump refused to promulgate a standard that would insist that hospital employers provide optimal personal protective equipment for nurses, doctors, and other health care workers.”

Scalia, who was a veteran employment law attorney for corporations before joining the Trump administration, has previously argued that DOL already has sufficient enforcement authority to investigate complaints that workplaces are exposing employees to Covid-19. The labor chief has said the department’s issuance of voluntary guidance on precautions employers should take during the pandemic was a better alternative than mandatory rules.

“OSHA has preexisting requirements and standards that not only remain in place and enforceable, but also apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus. These include conducting hazard assessments, ensuring sanitation and cleanliness, providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and requiring training and education, as well as the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act),” the DOL spokeswoman said Friday. “Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, OSHA has cited 62 establishments for violations, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $913,133.”

DOL prevailed in federal appeals court after the AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit seeking to compel OSHA to issue an emergency standard.

Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella told Bloomberg Law in May that Scalia has talked to the head of United Food and Commercial Workers, whose members have been particularly vulnerable to on-the-job exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Scalia’s March meetings demonstrated bipartisanship when it came to discussions with lawmakers and state officials. Eight governors had Scalia’s ear during that time, four from each party.

He had 20 discussions with GOP members of Congress or their staffers, seven talks with Democrats, and two meetings that included participants from both parties.

Son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the labor secretary was selected by President Donald Trump last year to replace Alex Acosta, who had resigned.

(Updated with DOL response in 7th and 12th paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at; Andrew Harris at