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Workplace Safety Targeted in Watchdog’s New Virus-Oversight Plan

Nov. 2, 2020, 7:00 PM

The U.S. Labor Department’s independent watchdog is expanding the reach of its already wide-ranging review of how multiple DOL agencies have responded to the pandemic, increasing its focus on workplace safety and unemployment insurance.

The department’s Office of Inspector General will launch probes into the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s decision to reduce workplace inspections while facing a lawsuit from meatpacking employees that asks a court to force the agency to inspect their job site, according to the watchdog’s audit plan for fiscal year 2021.

The plan, released Monday, also lists upcoming probes of OSHA’s limited use of complainant and witness testimony during inspections; its collaboration with other agencies; and its enforcement of severe violators.

In the area of unemployment assistance, the watchdog will complete an ongoing audit of the department’s implementation of virus-relief funds for states to use in paying jobless benefits. It also will conduct “after-the-fact” oversight of the federal-state expansion of unemployment insurance to cover millions of workers sidelined by the pandemic. Further, it will examine DOL’s distribution of $1 billion to support states in scaling up administration of their unemployment insurance programs and the effectiveness of DOL’s efforts to prevent fraud and improper payments.

The watchdog’s plan for fiscal 2021—the 12-month period that started Oct. 1—demonstrates it will scrutinize many of the same issues that have drawn criticism from Democrats and other elements of the political left.

That includes complaints that OSHA hasn’t adequately protected employees from coronavirus infection in the workplace and that the Employment and Training Administration, which oversees the federal-state unemployment insurance system, hasn’t done enough to ensure that stimulus dollars have extended jobless aid to the maximum number of workers possible.

Future Policies

The results of these audits could inform future policies—either virus-relief legislation from Congress, DOL efforts to implement new laws, or even potential administrative changes by the department.

In coming months congressional lawmakers will consider whether to renew unemployment aid to gig workers and temporary paid sick and family leave during the pandemic—two programs that expire Dec. 31.

Debate over a new stimulus package also is likely to include the question of whether to require OSHA to advance an emergency standard that would mandate employers take steps to safeguard workers from Covid-19 infection. If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president, he could order OSHA to take that step—something President Donald Trump‘s administration has declined to do.

The watchdog’s list of upcoming audits also responds to concerns from a broad range of state governments and other outside groups that the unprecedented spike in jobless-aid claims led to benefits being paid to criminals posing as laid-off workers.

Job Corps

Another contentious topic on the watchdog’s agenda is the Wage and Hour Division’s ability to balance traditional enforcement functions related to minimum wages and overtime with its heightened responsibility to implement the paid-leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This effort will follow up on an initial report the watchdog office compiled documenting challenges the WHD faces to carry out its mission during the pandemic.

In addition, after the watchdog cautioned DOL’s Office of Job Corps that it needs to more closely monitor the pandemic’s effect on its vocational training program for youth, it will probe the gradual re-opening of Job Corps campuses, a process that was slated to begin Oct. 20.

Unrelated to the pandemic, the IG offered a fuller description of its previously announced review of ETA’s misuse of congressionally appropriated funds to further the Trump administration’s plan to create a new system for apprenticeship programs that gives industry more control over the process.

“This audit will determine the actions ETA took to identify, correct, and prevent inappropriate expenditures of funds in the future,” the watchdog said in the FY2021 plan.

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; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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