Nevada senators urge Scalia to revise ‘narrow’ approach to unemployment benefits

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U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia (Labor Dept. photo)
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U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia (Labor Dept. photo)

Nevadans Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen are among three dozen Democratic U.S. senators urging Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to stop misinterpreting congressional intent and revise his department’s guidance on unemployment benefits so as to get more money to more people more quickly.

Nevada and other individual states have all signed preliminary agreements with the Labor Department to implement the federal unemployment insurance provisions in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed into law last month. Those provisions supplement state unemployment benefits with an additional $600 a week from the federal government, while extending unemployment benefits to gig workers, independent contractors, the self-employed and other workers traditionally not covered by state unemployment insurance programs.

The Labor Department has also begun to issue some of the guidance necessary for states and the department to implement the new and expanded unemployment benefits.

“However, parts of the guidance 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 wrote in a letter to Scalia Monday.

Echoing long-held doctrine on the political right about government programs creating what critics call a “cycle of dependency,” Scalia, writing for Fox Business News last week, suggested that the unemployment benefits Congress passed and the president signed into law are too generous, and could prompt U.S. workers to “become dependent on the unemployment system.”

Scalia, a corporate attorney, “has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits,” the Washington Post reported Friday. “The new rules make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits, while making it easier for some companies to avoid paying their workers coronavirus-related sick and family leave.”

The senators’ letter urges Scalia to revise his department’s guidance to assure self-employed and gig workers are eligible for benefits. The letter seeks several other clarifications, including assurances that benefits will apply to workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 without receiving a test, as well as workers unable to get to work due to stay-at-home orders.

The snag in implementing the CARES act’s unemployment provisions, particularly as they apply to gig workers, was underscored in Nevada over the weekend by the overwhelmed state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

“Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for independent contractors, freelancers, gig workers and other workers” are “not covered by standard Unemployment Insurance,” DETR said in a release Saturday. “Individuals falling under this category are encouraged not to file at this time, as work continues on the PUA implementation plan.”

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.