'Narrow' DOL guidance on coronavirus benefits for gig workers prompts protest

By Rebecca Rainey

Instructions from the Labor Department on how to pay emergency unemployment benefits to gig workers sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic prompted protest Monday from Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

The DOL guidance, issued this past weekend, implements the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was created in last month's blizzard of emergency coronavirus legislation. PUA extends unemployment payments to gig workers and others who ordinarily would be ineligible for unemployment insurance.

But Wyden, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday that DOL's explanation of who is eligible and who is not could result in many workers being denied benefits unjustly.

“I’m deeply concerned that the Trump administration’s guidance to states on administering expanded unemployment insurance weakens the program in several areas," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) in an emailed statement. Among other things, he said, the guidance will compel workers "to wade through significant red tape to prove their eligibility," and that this "will inevitably prevent workers from receiving assistance they desperately need." Wyden said he will follow up with Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia "as soon as possible" to discuss his objections.

Under the legislation, the third and most expensive of three coronavirus bills signed into law last month, lawmakers extended up to 39 weeks' benefits to individuals who were ordinarily ineligible for state unemployment programs, including gig workers, independent contractors and people who hadn't worked long enough to collect unemployment benefits. The bill allows these workers to collect unemployment benefits if the spread of Covid-19 bars them from working.

But Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Century Foundation, argued that the guidance was "criminally narrow."

He cited as an example a provision in the law that said workers are eligible for coverage if they are caring for a child whose school has closed. Once the school year is over, the guidance said, these workers can no longer collect benefits, even if the pandemic continues to threaten public health. "A school is not closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. . . after the date the school year was originally scheduled to end," the guidance said.

"This administration doesn’t get it," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an emailed statement. "We should not be nickel and diming people who are hurting, especially when the same bill that provides these unemployment benefits also includes a $170 billion tax giveaway to America’s richest real estate investors."

Another complaint Stettner raised was that DOL says in the guidance that Uber and Lyft drivers "may not be eligible" for benefits if they're claiming they're "unable to reach" their place of employment — because rideshare drivers don't have a place of employment. But the DOL guidance says such drivers may be eligible if they are "forced to suspend operations" due to the coronavirus, "such as if an emergency state or municipal order restricting movement makes continued operations unsustainable."

"While PUA was meant to fill gaping holes in the existing unemployment program that excludes far too many workers from receiving benefits," said Stettner in a prepared statement. The rules, he said, "will greatly undermine the effectiveness of the system."

But Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning National Employment Law Project, said she thought the guidance leaves states some room to interpret the statute more generously. "I don't think that this precludes states" from applying the law more broadly, she said.

DOL did not respond to a request for comment.