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Punching In: Rank and File Returning to Labor Department Desks

Feb. 22, 2022, 10:30 AM

Monday morning musings for workplace watchers

RTO for the DOL | Pay for the Disabled

Rebecca Rainey: U.S. Labor Department employees are scheduled to begin getting back to in-office work next week, after multiple delays in the agency’s return plans for its roughly 15,000 workers across the country.

The department will allow staff to return at 50% capacity starting Feb. 28, according to an email sent to agency staff on Friday, a copy of which was shared with Bloomberg Law. Workers in positions “performing critical functions,” or in jobs “that must be” or “are better performed onsite,” are permitted to go into the office, according to the agency.

The department is now only permitting up to 25% of staff to report in person—and only if they’re conducting “mission-critical work” that can’t be done via telework.

Field staff for DOL’s enforcement agencies, like the Wage and Hour Division, have already returned to work, according to the department, although their duties are largely outside the office.

“As more workers are returning to their workplaces, we also continue to increase our worksite presence,” Acting Wage and Hour Administrator Jessica Looman said in a statement.

The agency will allow staff to return at 75% capacity starting at the end of March, and plans to allow up to 100% of its workforce back starting May 2.

The homecoming for DOL employees—which includes a daily health screening requirement and a request that workers keep masks handy—comes after criticism from Republican lawmakers who said the department was setting a bad example for the U.S. workforce.

Reps. Virginia Foxx (N.C.) and James Comer (Ky.)—who serve as ranking members of the Education and Labor and Oversight and Reform panels, respectively—requested in December that the DOL hand over entry and exit data from its D.C. headquarters as well as more details on its plans to bring federal staffers back to work in-person.

The pair also sought more information about Labor Secretary Marty Walsh’s travel schedule, citing concerns over his attendance in D.C., among other information, requesting a response by early January.

In a letter to the Republicans dated Feb. 17, Michelle Rose, deputy assistant secretary at DOL’s congressional affairs office, said that the agency has notified employees who have been permitted to work from home that they’ll be required to return to their assigned worksite and has begun moving away from “a maximum telework posture.”

“DOL continues to evaluate the epidemiological landscape and will take appropriate steps to further modify the Reentry Plan and timeline as needed,” the letter said. “Mission critical onsite work will continue to be performed at the Department’s facilities in Washington, D.C., as well as those throughout the country.”

That response didn’t sit well with Foxx.

By responding “with minimal details about pertinent records, plans to return to full, in-person capacity, and the whereabouts of Secretary Walsh and other political appointees” as requested, she told Bloomberg Law, “DOL is comfortable being derelict in its duty to serve America’s workforce.”

Also Read

Labor Department Delays Staff Return Until End of February

GOP Lawmakers Press Walsh Over Living Arrangement, DOL Reopening

Workers Head Back to Offices Amid Growing Distrust of Employers

Paige Smith: A rarely discussed program that legally permits workers with disabilities to earn less than the minimum wage—solely because of their disability status—is catching the attention of Capitol Hill lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Over the past several months, DOL’s Walsh has held at least three meetings to discuss what is known as the 14(c) program; a Senate labor committee held a hearing to learn more about employment barriers for workers with disabilities earlier this month; and the Labor Department recently recovered $154,443 in minimum wages from an employer in Indiana that didn’t qualify to pay subminimum wages.

These rumblings are taking place as lawmakers push to eliminate the practice of legally paying workers with disabilities subminimum wages federally, states continue to take action, and advocates call for the pace to quicken.

Simultaneously, at least one group is meeting with lawmakers in both chambers to slow things down.

“There is a, as I mentioned, a very vulnerable population of people with intellectual disabilities, and this might be their only opportunity for a job,” said Craig Leen, a partner with K&L Gates LLP, who is serving as counsel to the Coalition for the Preservation of 14C, a group representing the interests of “families, caregivers, and other stakeholders working to preserve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” according to its website.

“The point the coalition would make is, ‘who is speaking for these individuals in this debate?’” said Leen, who previously served as the director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs during the Trump administration. His daughter has autism.

Since the group at the end of January unveiled a white paper outlining why Congress should preserve the 14(c) program, the group said it’s met with 31 U.S. House members and 10 senators. Of the lawmakers, 28 were Democrats and 13 were Republicans, according to the group. The coalition is representing 47 workplaces from 22 states.

Its fly-in occurred after Walsh had three meetings in October on the topic, according to the agency’s website.

The first two were labeled as internal meetings on the topic, held Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, and the third on Oct. 27 was a call with Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

Casey introduced legislation in November which would bar the Labor Department from issuing new 14(c) certificates to employers while phasing out existing certificates over five years. A version of the bill already had been introduced in the House.

“Since last year, I have been working with the Biden Administration to achieve our shared goal of phasing out subminimum wage and increasing competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities,” Casey said in an email. “Every American deserves to be paid a fair wage, but unfortunately that is not the case for many Americans with disabilities.”

A Casey aide said the senator “regularly checks in with the Biden administration on this issue.”

A Murray aide confirmed that the senator called in to the Oct. 27 meeting, and that she is also prioritizing ending the 14(c) program. Cardona directed comments to the Labor Department, which declined to comment on the meetings. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

We’re punching out. Daily Labor Report subscribers, please check in for updates during the week, and feel free to reach out to us.

To contact the reporters on this story: Rebecca Rainey at rrainey@bloombergindustry.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com, Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com