By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
Washington (PAI) — Congress wants workers, especially frontline health care workers battling the coronavirus pandemic, to get paid sick and family leave if they need it. President Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia apparently doesn’t.
And though DOL Assistant Inspector General for Audit Elliot Lewis didn’t put those words in his new report, it describes that result as the on-the-ground impact of the paid family leave rules Scalia imposed after Congress enacted the paid leave law early this year.
Lewis told the agency’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD),, which administers the paid sick and family leave section of the first coronavirus relief act, that Scalia wrote in so many exemptions of health care workers from it that even the Labor Secretary calculated nine million workers would be left without the leave. Lewis’s Aug. 7 report is at dol.gov/public/reports.
NOT COUNTING ALL THE WORKERS
Lewis adds that number may be low because Scalia didn’t total up the numbers of workers in all the health care occupations he exempted from paid leave.
Scalia’s list, Lewis’s report says, includes not just doctors and nurses, CNAs and other direct medical personnel. It also includes hospital workers, other workers in doctors’ offices, health care center workers, clinic workers and workers in university hospitals, medical schools and student health clinics.
ALSO KICKING OUT NURSING HOME WORKERS
That’s not all. Scalia banned paid family and medical leave coverage for nursing home workers, retirement home workers, home health care workers, pharmacists, testing and lab workers, workers at any outside firm those health care institutions contract with to help battle the coronavirus, and any workers at drug companies working on vaccines to battle the virus.
As if banning family leave coverage wasn’t bad enough, the coronavirus pandemic stripped the division of capacity to enforce the paid leave law — or anything else — says the report, WHD Needs To Closely Monitor The Pandemic Impact On Its Operations.
Since WHD also enforces violations of minimum wage and overtime laws, commonly known as wage theft, that’s important to all workers, not just those eligible for paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, the first economic aid bill Congress passed earlier this year to help blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.
In the six months before March 18 — when Congress passed the law — 53.2 percent of the Wage and Hours Division’s normal tasks, probing wage theft, were “limited or full-scale investigations.” That dropped to 18.3 percent in the first two months of the pandemic.
FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE
The score was even worse in cases involving paid family and medical leave. There was no comparison before the act passed, but there were 1,050 complaints of family leave violations in the ensuing two months. There were four limited investigations, and no full-scale top-to-bottom probe-the-whole-company investigations.
The limited probes include on-site fact-finding, interviewing workers and reviewing corporate pay records, and usually involve complaints from one or a few workers. Instead, 99.6 percent of the family leave probes have been “conciliations,” which Lewis said are normally used for very minor offenses, or “office audits,” where WHD looks at e-mailed company records and interviews workers over the phone.
The story is similar for the 2,670 wage theft probes since March, Lewis reported: 52.5 percent conciliations, and 28.5 percent office audits. One of every eight wage theft probes led to a full-blown investigation. His report did not compare the number of wage theft investigations from March through May to the same time a year ago.
WHD officials explained to Lewis the pandemic and the hazards of community spread forced their inspectors to telework and pinned them to their desks at home. They couldn’t go out in the field to probe either paid leave violations or wage theft, they told him.
LOBBYING FOR PAID SICK AND FAMILY LEAVE
Lewis’s report comes as workers and their allies are lobbying to extend and expand paid sick and family leave in the final version of the next coronavirus economic aid bill.
It also caught the eye of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the longtime advocate of paid sick and family leave for all workers, and chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that actually helps dole out DOL money. She laid the blame on the Trump regime’s “fumbled response” to the coronavirus pandemic and its “continued sacrificing of working families.”
“The workers on the frontlines of this pandemic, showing up day after day to keep this country running, must be protected and are entitled to a safe work environment,” DeLauro said in a statement.
“Long before the spread of this pandemic, I have been fighting to ensure workers do not have to choose between a paycheck and keeping themselves and their families healthy. But this administration has shown yet again that working families are the least of their priorities.
“Paid sick and paid family medical leave is a major pillar in the Families First Corona-virus Relief Act and a critical aspect of our nation’s response to the pandemic. By expanding the congressionally determined definition of ‘health care provider,’ the Department of Labor is excluding millions of workers from the bipartisan protections determined by Congress.
“Millions of health care providers” — the firms and institutions on Scalia’s exemption list — “are given a free pass to avoid offering enhanced paid leave to workers should they get sick during this pandemic. Additionally, the IG found the agency has not been completing enough investigations of companies to enforce the paid sick leave provisions and has no existing plan to…enforce worker protection laws and regulations.”
“It is the federal government’s duty to protect workers,” DeLauro declared.