From his guidance rolling back paid leave benefits to his attempt to limit who qualifies for beefed up unemployment insurance, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia's implementation of the multi-trillion-dollar coronavirus stimulus package is coming under fire from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups who say the former corporate lawyer's handling of the new law favors businesses over people in desperate need of assistance.
Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, "has used his department's authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits," the Washington Post reported Friday.
"Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is using his authority to limit who qualifies for assistance. This is despicable. We are in the midst of a pandemic!"
—Rep. Steve Cohen
In a tweet late Friday, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) pointed to the unprecedented surge in jobless claims over the past month and ripped Scalia's "despicable" management of the CARES Act, which temporarily expands relief for the unemployed.
"Because of COVID-19, more than 16 million Americans have submitted unemployment claims in the past three weeks, but Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is using his authority to limit who qualifies for assistance," Cohen wrote. "This is despicable. We are in the midst of a pandemic!"
While criticizing the stimulus package—which President Donald Trump signed into law late last month—as far too business-friendly overall, progressives have cautiously applauded the law's across-the-board expansion of unemployment benefits by $600 for a period of four months.
But lawmakers have voiced alarm at the Labor Department's lack of urgency in rolling out the benefits and, as the Post reported, Scalia issued guidance earlier this week that aims to "make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits."
Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, ripped the department's guidance in a series of tweets:
The Trump-Scalia Dept of Labor released new regulatory guidance for the new pandemic #unemployment assistance (PUA) program passed by Congress in the #CARESAct, and it’s criminally narrow. https://t.co/A8FwrrX13A
— AndrewStettner (@pelhamprog) April 6, 2020
While the program will cover #gigeconomy workers, it only extends to those who are “forced to suspend operations” because of #COVID19, leaving those who could still turn their apps on—even if they can’t find work—in a grey area.
— AndrewStettner (@pelhamprog) April 6, 2020
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Earlier this month, as Common Dreams reported, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) slammed Scalia for quietly scaling back the already inadequate paid leave provisions in the CARES Act and creating "gratuitous loopholes" for companies to deny benefits to their employees.
"The Trump administration is twisting the law to allow employers to shirk their responsibility and is significantly narrowing which workers are eligible for paid leave," Murray said in a statement. "This simply can't stand. This guidance needs to be rewritten so workers get the leave they are guaranteed under the law."
The Post reported that under the Labor Department's newly issued rules, "businesses that deny workers paid leave don't have to send the government any paperwork justifying why. The Labor Department's guidance asks companies to 'retain such records for its own files,' a contrast with the heavy documentation required from gig workers who must prove they were affected by the coronavirus outbreak to get aid."
Scalia has not been shy in offering his opinion on the stimulus law's expansion of benefits.
"Unemployment is not the preferred outcome when government stay-at-home orders force temporary business shutdowns," Scalia wrote earlier this week in a Fox Business op-ed with Jovita Carranza, the head of the Small Business Administration. "We want workers to have work, not to become dependent on the unemployment system."
Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute, called Scalia's warning about unemployment dependency in the midst of a global pandemic "an absolute disgrace."
This is outrageous. The Secretary of Labor suggesting that what we really need to worry about right now—when we have shut down huge portions of the economy and thrown millions out of work—is workers becoming *dependent on the unemployment system* is an absolute disgrace. pic.twitter.com/IpMdBoFX30
— Heidi Shierholz (@hshierholz) April 6, 2020
As New York magazine's Eric Levitz put it Friday, "Trump's Labor Department has been working diligently to ensure that no U.S. worker has it too easy in the middle of a pandemic and burgeoning economic depression."