DOL watchdog to probe OSHA inspections as workplaces reopen

Dept of Labor 

The House Oversight Committee's Government Operations subcommittee quizzed two top officials at the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General June 1 about how the watchdog office holding the agency accountable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DOL IG Scott Dahl and Assistant IG Elliott Lewis told subcommittee chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA.) that their office was reviewing the guidance that DOL and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration developed in response to workplace risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're evaluating the guidance that OSHA has issued and their activity in terms of efforts in protecting employees as they return to work," Dahl told Connolly.

Lewis added that the DOL OIG would conduct an initial assessment and then review how OSHA was conducting its workplace inspections and enforcements with an initial report coming at the end of June.

Last week, OSHA head Loren Sweatt told Oversight Committee members that it had received some 5,000 COVID-related workplace complaints but had only issued one citation for a bookkeeping violation.

Connolly said aging information technology systems also hurt the DOL in that they could hamper state unemployment agency offices' ability to process unemployment claims and deliver payments.

"We've changed the rules on unemployment, but the problem is that it's run at the state level. Every state has its own rules and parameters, but also its own IT system, that in many cases is simply not capable of handling the volume or programming of changes to what we did to unemployment under the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act]," he said, pointing out that many states still ran on the archaic COBOL programming language.

"To what extent are you going to be looking at very antiquated legacy IT systems that needed to be upgraded and reinvested in if we're going to pump this cash into the economy that it so desperately needs?"

Dahl said in response that while upgrades were needed, "during a pandemic wasn't the optimal time" for IT modernization.

"It's definitely something we're looking at. One focus will be what we could be doing now or in the near future so that in the next emergency, the next time we have a disaster situation, that the systems are better prepared," Lewis added.

Another area that remained high on the IG's list of concerns was its lack of access to the National Directory of New Hires, a point that Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) addressed.

"It's something we've been pressing for for years because it's such a helpful dataset that the Government Accountability Office and states have access too, but as the DOL, we don't," Dahl said in response, referencing the OIG's recently released semiannial report to Congress.

He explained that gaining access to the database would allow the agency to see when and if people were being rehired, which would in turn allow the office to assess whether they were improperly receiving unemployment payments when they were in truth gainfully employed.

Dahl added that the OIG had developed a heat map to coordinate with U.S. attorneys' office and the Justice Department areas to target where unemployment payment fraud was rampant.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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