CORONAVIRUS

Watchdog: Labor Department Falling Down On Enforcing COVID-19 Sick Leave Law

The inspector general's report also criticized the department's "lax enforcement of wage and hour laws" at a time when workers desperately need support.

At a time when workers around the country are increasingly desperate to hang on to their jobs, the Department of Labor, led by Eugene Scalia, is failing to enforce the benefits and protections they’re entitled to at work.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has not done enough to raise awareness of ― or enforce ― a new paid sick leave law passed to deal with COVID-19, according to a report from the department’s Office of the Inspector General released publicly Tuesday.

The watchdog report, which was issued internally on Aug. 7, also seems to side with a recent court ruling that found the Labor Department left out too many workers when it wrote the rules around the paid sick leave law. And, the report says, the department is also doing less than usual to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers minimum wage and overtime laws.

Part of the issue is that investigators at the Labor Department are working remotely and not able to go out into the field and inspect workplaces, according to the report. Before the pandemic, the Wage and Hour Division would investigate more than half of the complaints it got on overtime pay and minimum wage laws “on-site,” meaning investigators would visit workplaces. Now, only about 19% of such complaints are given this kind of attention.

But there are other problems: The department has not put together any kind of plan for how to deal with these limitations, for starters.

“The pandemic cannot be an excuse for lax enforcement of wage and hour laws or harm to workers,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank New America, who calls the report a “wake-up call.” 

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, pictured in April, is overseeing a department that has been lax in enforcing worker protection
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, pictured in April, is overseeing a department that has been lax in enforcing worker protections during the coronavirus crisis, according to a watchdog report.

The report is particularly critical of the way the department has implemented  the new paid sick leave law, passed in March as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Under that law, workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees are entitled to two weeks of fully paid sick leave, up to $511 per day, to quarantine from COVID-19 or to see a doctor because of virus symptoms.

The law also offers partially paid time off (at two-thirds of pay) to those who are caring for someone under quarantine or for children because of a school closure or unavailability of child care. The law did say that health care providers or emergency responders could ask that their employees be exempt from getting leave.

But the department interpreted that health care exemption very broadly, leaving out not just doctors and nurses, but people like janitors who work in hospitals and cashiers at pharmacies. The Labor Department estimated that 9 million health care workers were exempted, but the report on Tuesday says the number is likely higher.

“The Inspector General’s report makes clear that the Department of Labor went out of its way to limit the number of workers who could take emergency paid leave,” said Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The Department of Labor Inspector General’s report confirms that the Trump Administration is using its discretion to prevent workers emergency paid leave during a global pandemic.”

The White House also took steps to narrow the paid leave provision before it was passed ― carving out a huge exemption for workers at companies with more than 500 employees.

It took the department 100 days after the paid sick leave law was passed to kick off a public awareness campaign to workers, Scott noted in a July letter to the Wage and Hour Division, criticizing the way it was handling these issues.

The need to educate the public is acute: A May survey found that more than half of Americans were not aware of the new benefit or didn’t think they’d qualify. And the benefits are only available through the end of the year.

The Labor Department was given $2.5 million in the Cares Act to spread awareness about paid sick leave ― a critical way of reducing spread of the virus. Yet the department has not spent any of that money, nor does it have a plan for spending it, according to the report on Tuesday.

In its response, included in the report, the Labor Department did not dispute any of the watchdog’s findings and said it would come up with plans soon for these issues.

But time is running out. The new paid sick leave benefit expires on Dec. 31.

Read the full report below: