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Watchdog Urges Greater Pandemic Oversight of Job Corps Program

July 29, 2020, 7:01 PM

An internal watchdog has warned the Labor Department that its vocational training system needs to be more closely monitored during the pandemic, as thousands of vulnerable participants have been left without computer and internet access for virtual learning.

The DOL’s Office of Inspector General launched a review of the Job Corps program after the department in March suspended nearly all operations at 121 learning centers across the country to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks. The live-in facilities, operated by outside contractors, provide educational services and career training to roughly 30,000 underprivileged youth—representing DOL’s largest workforce development initiative.

Some 55 campuses remained open to house 445 students who had nowhere else to go, and four of those students and 35 staff members tested positive for Covid-19 from mid-March through May, the watchdog said in a report made public Wednesday. All other students were sent to their homes or to alternative living arrangements in March, and the DOL transitioned the entire program to distance learning on May 11.

But the department has struggled to ensure the equity in computer technology and connectivity students need to engage in the Job Corps curriculum, the report said. At least 3,800 Job Corps students told the department that they didn’t have a computer or other device needed to access distance-learning, according to an April DOL survey cited in the report. The department said in a response included in the report that it is “working to ensure each student has the needed tools...for remote learning by August 2020"—some five months after the shift to distance-learning for most participants.

The watchdog recommended the department develop a plan to ensure all students can continue learning while off-campus, and warned that the public health emergency and the reeling labor market will make it even more challenging to train students and help them secure employment. It also urged DOL to ensure that all centers have sufficient personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies before they are reopened, and that safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are followed.

“Job Corps needs to continue monitoring the number of individuals testing positive, provide oversight to ensure the appropriate actions are completed and take any necessary steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 at its centers,” the watchdog recommended.

History of Oversight

The DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, which administers contracts to companies to run the centers and monitors their performance, “generally agreed” with the recommendations and said it’s working to implement most of them, the report stated. The watchdog’s review was part of a series of audits examining pandemic response across DOL’s various subagencies.

While the report stopped short of directly criticizing how the DOL has managed Job Corps’ sprawling bureaucracy during the transition to remote learning, the watchdog offered an often-negative outlook of how the public health crisis threatens the educational and career prospects of the program’s participants, who range in age from 16 to 24.

“Many students are high school dropouts and/or basic skills-deficient (i.e., have reading, writing, and computer skills at or below the 8th grade level),” the report said. “Without the structured environment Job Corps provides, which includes housing, food, and healthcare, as well as guidelines for going to bed and getting up early, some students may not be able to learn remotely and may leave the program.”

ETA Assistant Secretary John Pallasch said in a memo to the watchdog that was included in the report that students who are unable to connect remotely are still receiving instruction through paper packets sent via mail, and that the agency is in the process of “procuring Chromebooks and wireless hotspot devices” for them.

But Pallasch also acknowledged that the “Covid-19 pandemic has posed, and continues to pose, several challenges for the Job Corps program.”

The department’s handling of the Job Corps initiative has drawn numerous bipartisan oversight requests over the past decade, as safety, budgeting, and job placement issues have plagued the training centers. Despite operational difficulties prior to the pandemic, Job Corps continues to enjoy support from lawmakers from both parties, who have rejected Trump administration proposals to slash its budget.

Two North Carolina Republicans—House Education and Labor Committee ranking member Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr—recently asked the Government Accountability Office to launch an investigation into Job Corps. In an October 2019 letter, the duo requested GAO conduct on-the-ground compliance tests “in addition to assessing safety protocols,” citing a 2018 GAO report that identified 13,500 “safety and security incidents.”

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com