Democrats press Labor secretary for broad distribution of unemployment benefits
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats pressed Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Monday to broadly apply beefed-up unemployment benefits authorized by the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package signed into law last month.
The senators warned in a letter that parts of the Labor Department’s guidance for disbursing the jobless benefits “appear narrow or ambiguous, which could make states think they need to exclude workers who Congress clearly intended to receive unemployment compensation through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.”
The senators urged Scalia to clarify the guidelines for workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 without receiving a test, workers with the deadly disease who take time off; those who miss work because of stay-at-home orders or underlying health conditions such as asthma; and gig workers like ride-share drivers who have seen business evaporate.
They called on the department to clarify its guidance for unemployment benefits no later than Friday.
The letter was spearheaded by Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, and signed by 32 other Senate Democrats.
The senators want the Labor Department to make “crystal clear” that a diagnosis of COVID-19 does not require an accompanying positive test from a health care provider because of testing shortages and delays in reporting results.
They advised Scalia that the $2.2 trillion bill, known as the CARES Act, was intended to provide benefits to workers who must take unpaid time off work because of the pandemic, regardless of whether their relationship with an employer is formally severed.
The Democrats said that an individual may qualify for unemployment benefits if that person has “primary caregiving responsibility” for a child who is unable to attend school or another facility closed because of the coronavirus.
The lawmakers are objecting to federal guidance stating that a school is not considered closed because of coronavirus during the summer months, when it would be closed even without the pandemic. Democrats argue the guidance should be clarified to cover child care responsibilities necessitated by the closure of summer camps and other child care facilities.
They also want Scalia to broaden guidance for people who miss work because they cannot travel to their place of employment. The department’s current language directing benefits to people who miss work because of orders “restricting travel” is too narrow and should be expanded to include stay-at-home, shelter-in-place and other social-distancing orders that cause people to miss work, Democrats argue.
They said guidance for gig workers should be clarified to include independent contractors, such as Uber drivers, who are “unable to work and forced to suspend work activities because there is reduced demand for their services.”
On the health front, the senators want the agency to broaden qualifying health risks that would warrant self-quarantine and missed time on the job beyond a compromised immune system to other factors, such as advanced age.
Democrats asserted that federal officials should also work with state unemployment agencies to make it easier to reapply for unemployment benefits.
“It would be inefficient for both the claimant and the state workforce agency if individuals have to file a new initial application each time their qualifying circumstance changes,” Democrats wrote.
Senators said they have also heard “conflicting reports” about whether the Labor Department’s guidance allows for $600 federal supplements to unemployment benefits in U.S. territories that do not have unemployment insurance programs. They said the $600 should be available “for anyone qualifying for PUA in any of the territories.”
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