Van Hollen, Murray, Democrats Push Scalia to Advocate for Workers, Question DOL’s Absence from Task Force
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and 20 other Democratic Senators in demanding that Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia ensure the federal government’s response to coronavirus address the immediate and long-term needs of workers. The Democrats expressed concern regarding the Department of Labor’s (DOL) continued absence or exclusion from the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Senator Murray has been leading the effort to protect workers and last week introduced emergency paid sick leave legislation that would immediately provide 14 days paid sick leave in light of the coronavirus crisis.
As the coronavirus spreads to communities across the country, many workers on the frontlines of the crisis and beyond face serious impacts. Health care workers have already raised concerns about the lack of adequate training and personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as provider shortages. Transportation workers worry about contracting and spreading the disease. For many workers who cannot telework, staying home due to the impacts of coronavirus on themselves or family means losing a paycheck.
“The seeming absence or exclusion of DOL from any aspect of the Administration’s efforts to address this crisis is alarming. As workers across the country in all sectors of the economy face potential impacts of the disease, it is critically important the federal government is taking appropriate steps to address their needs in its response. We call on you – as the lead federal government official responsible for the protection and advocacy of workers – to ensure response efforts incorporate both the immediate and long-term needs of workers,” wrote the senators.
In a letter to Secretary Scalia, the senators pressed him about DOL’s continued absence from the task force, asking if he had been invited by Vice President Pence or if he had requested to be a member. The senators also asked who, if anyone, has advocated for the needs of workers in the federal government’s response to the virus. Considering the urgency of the crisis, the senators asked for a response no later than March 24
In addition to Senators Van Hollen and Murray, the letter was signed by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Warner (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Tom Carper (D-DE).
Democrats in the Senate have already pushed for answers from the DOL on how they will respond to the needs of workers during the coronavirus crisis. Additionally, Senators Van Hollen and Murray and 19 Democratic senators have introduced a bill that would require all employers to allow workers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave and to provide an additional 14 days available immediately in the event of any public health emergency, including the current coronavirus crisis.
The full text of the letter is available below and here.
Dear Secretary Scalia:
We write to request additional information on the Department of Labor’s (DOL) role in the federal government’s response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). The seeming absence or exclusion of DOL from any aspect of the Administration’s efforts to address this crisis is alarming. As workers across the country in all sectors of the economy face potential impacts of the disease, it is critically important the federal government is taking appropriate steps to address their needs in its response. We call on you – as the lead federal government official responsible for the protection and advocacy of workers – to ensure response efforts incorporate both the immediate and long-term needs of workers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has offered some recommendations to employers on how to advise workers on preventive measures and appropriate actions if they begin to feel sick. CDC recommends employers plan for how to respond, incorporating such factors as the severity of the disease, the number of vulnerable workers employed by the organization, and the number of workers who may be impacted by other factors related to the response (such as school closures or lack of child care). DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website also contains recommendations for workers, particularly those in industries who might be at higher risk of infection – such as health care, laboratory, or airline workers.
But the reality is that many workers continue to face significant challenges in how to respond to this infectious disease as COVID-19 reaches communities across the country. Health care workers on the frontlines of the response are raising concerns about the lack of adequate training in how to handle potentially infected patients and the need for adequate personal protective equipment, including masks and face shields. They are also flagging the potential for provider shortages in a system that is already stretched thin. Workers across the transportation industry – including those responsible for cleaning buses and airplanes transporting potentially infected passengers – are worried about contracting and inadvertently spreading the disease. Too many workers are facing difficult choices of what to do if they get sick, when working from home is not an option for their job and missing work entirely means losing a paycheck.
There does not seem to be any consideration at the highest levels of the Administration’s COVID-19 response for the day-to-day realities of many workers on the frontlines and beyond. The President’s Coronavirus Task Force, which has expanded to include officials across the federal government, does not seem to include any officials from your Department. It is incumbent upon you to ensure federal response efforts prioritize the needs of workers across the country.
We are concerned by the Administration’s response to the needs of workers in the current public health crisis and request answers to the following questions no later than March 24, 2020:
- Have you or any of the heads of the agencies within your Department been invited to join the President’s Task Force?
a. Has Vice President Pence or any other leader of the COVID-19 response asked you, any of the heads of the agencies within your Department, or any member of your staff to participate in Task Force meetings or events?
b. Have you requested to be a member of the Task Force or to be invited to Task Force meetings or events?
- Have you or any of the heads of the agencies within your Department voiced the needs of workers in the federal government’s COVID-19 response?
a. Has Vice President Pence or any other leader of the COVID-19 response asked for your input in incorporating the needs of workers into the response?
b. Have you contacted Vice President Pence or any other leader of the COVID-19 response to suggest specific steps the Administration should take to address the needs of workers in the response?
- Have you communicated with Members of Congress or congressional staff about the needs of workers as part of the COVID-19 response?
a. Senate Democrats have participated in several briefings from Administration officials, and to date, you have not participated. Have you not been invited or have you declined to participate?
We also look forward to reading your response to the letter sent by Senator Murray and several members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on March 2, 2020, regarding how the Department is preparing for the potential spread of the outbreak and working with other federal agencies and key stakeholders. Thank you for your consideration of these issues and your timely response.
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