CORONAVIRUS

Democrats Say Labor Department Stiffing Workers On Unemployment Benefits

Rideshare drivers are at the center of a dispute over expanded eligibility under the economic relief package.
Democratic senators ― including (from left) Ron Wyden (Ore.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.
Democratic senators ― including (from left) Ron Wyden (Ore.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) ― complained about the treatment of rideshare drivers and various other unemployment claimants.

To prop up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed the most sweeping expansion of unemployment insurance since the program began. Now, Democrats say the Trump administration is trying to undercut the new benefits.

Independent contractors and gig workers such as Uber drivers are supposed to be eligible for benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, but the U.S. Department of Labor has issued guidance to states that could make it tricky for a rideshare driver to qualify. 

“The guidance suggested gig workers wouldn’t be covered in some instances even if they can’t find work during a pandemic,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost. “So we’re saying, ‘Hey, look, if that Uber driver isn’t getting any requests for rides right now because the streets are sort of barren, they ought to be able to get their benefits.’” 

States are only just starting to implement the changes Congress enacted last month, which include an extra $600 per week for four months for unemployment claimants. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 20,000 Americans, while social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus have shuttered businesses and eliminated at least 16 million jobs. 

The new unemployment benefits are part of the CARES Act’s broader economic relief package that includes direct payments to most households and billions of dollars in business subsidies. Ordinarily, someone who is not formally on a company’s payroll is not eligible for benefits. 

The Labor Department’s guidance for the expanded benefits, issued a week ago, said a rideshare driver would qualify “if he or she has been forced to suspend operations as a direct result of the COVID19 public health emergency, such as if an emergency state or municipal order restricting movement makes continued operations unsustainable.”

Under a strict interpretation of that guidance, drivers wouldn’t qualify if they stopped driving as a precaution to avoid getting sick or if they stopped simply because too few customers are out there asking for rides. 

Wyden, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a majority of their fellow Senate Democrats complained about the treatment of rideshare drivers and various other unemployment claimants in a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Monday.

Another element of the new guidance that Democrats dislike is the requirement that certain workers show they either “tested positive” for the coronavirus or have been diagnosed with COVID-19 by a medical professional. Democrats say the Labor Department should make it “crystal clear” that a diagnosis is sufficient and that a positive test is never necessary, since tests are in such short supply. 

In response to the Democrats’ criticism, the Labor Department said that it had “moved rapidly” to provide guidance to states and that the examples of eligible unemployment scenarios it gave were “non-exhaustive.” 

The unemployment provisions of the CARES Act were controversial among Senate Republicans, who forced a vote on an amendment to try to strip out the extra $600. Republicans said the expanded benefits could cause people to choose unemployment over working. 

Public health officials have advised workers to stay home in order to curb the spread of the virus. But President Donald Trump has been antsy to get people back on the job for the benefit of the economy.

HuffPost readers: Are you a gig worker, like an Uber driver, applying for unemployment? Tell us about it ― email arthur@huffpost.com. Please include your phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed.

This story has been updated to include comment from the Labor Department. 


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