More than 50 civil rights groups spoke out against a Labor Department decision to temporarily suspend equal employment opportunity requirements for federal contractors assisting with coronavirus relief, saying the decision could “cause significant harm to marginalized workers hardest hit by the current crisis.”
The groups urged the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in a letter to rescind a March 17 memo that exempts federal contractors involved in virus-related efforts from complying with affirmative action obligations until June. The groups, which included the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Lambda Legal, the National Employment Law Project, and more, also asked the OFCCP to maintain a publicly available list of contractors that receive the exemption, among other demands.
“The pandemic and its economic repercussions are disproportionately impacting people of color and other historically marginalized communities, and the federal government must do everything to ensure that federal contractors responding to COVID-19 are affirmatively recruiting and promoting the employment opportunities created by this crisis to those most impacted,” they wrote.
The letter was sent as federal labor agencies have attempted to respond to the coronavirus pandemic within the confines of their respective regulations, while understanding that typical workplace operations have been substantially interrupted. The OFCCP has granted similar “national interest exemptions” in response to other tragedies, like natural disasters. The current exemption lasts through June 17, but could be extended.
The exemption should be rolled back to account for the number of layoffs occurring because of the pandemic, and the groups those layoffs are affecting more acutely, the letter said. More than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits for the week ending on March 28.
“The current pandemic has resulted in the shutdown of wide segments of our economy, including the travel, retail, restaurant and hospitality industries and is severely impacting vulnerable workers, including Black and Latinx workers, women, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people who experience heightened rates of workplace exploitation and discrimination,” the groups said.
The OFCCP didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment on the letter, or its specific demands.
The OFCCP granted a national interest exemption after Hurricane Katrina. The groups said the agency should “learn from” that disaster, and consider the unemployment rates faced by black residents of New Orleans after the storm.
“While unemployment rates for Katrina evacuees averaged 15.4 percent, Black evacuees were 5 times more likely to be unemployed than white evacuees,” they said.