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Labor Report

Tartaglione Introduces Bills to Strengthen COVID-19 Protections for Essential Food Industry Workers

Senator Tartaglione has introduced two new pieces of legislation to strengthen job safety protections and benefits for workers in essential food and drug industries during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The bills would designate workers at food processing/protein facilities and those at grocery stores and drug stores as “essential employees” and/or “front line employees” while guaranteeing them the same access to paid sick leave, paid family leave, and childcare that front line workers in other essential industries have.

In addition, the bills would require employers in these essential industries to implement more robust workplace safety policies for social distancing, environmental cleaning, and personal hygiene.

The bills are known as SB 1101, the COVID-19 Food Worker Safety Act, and SB 1102, the COVID-19 Grocery Store Worker Safety Act.

“The measures I have proposed in these bills would improve conditions for front line workers in essential industries and would reduce the risk of community spread of this potentially fatal virus,” Senator Tartaglione said. “These workers are vital to the food supply chains that nourish our communities. It is imperative that employers take proactive and preventative actions to protect them.”

Senator Tartaglione noted that the tragic, possibly COVID-19-related death of a Pennsylvania food processing plant worker, and the critical illness of several of the employee’s coworkers, highlight the urgent need for heightened safety protections.

Under the legislation, employers would be required to provide paid leave to employees who have been directed to quarantine, whether or not their exposure to the virus occurred in the workplace. This benefit would apply for the duration of the employee’s quarantine. The employer would also be prevented from disrupting or terminating an employee’s benefits due to a quarantine or medical leave.

Employers would be required to allow employees to use their accrued paid time off (PTO) to take a leave of absence to care for an infected family member or to care for a child. This requirement would preempt an employer’s attendance policy. If an employee has no accrued paid time off, the employer must allow the employee to take unpaid leave without penalty to the employee.

The legislation also includes cleaning and social distancing protocols for employers in cases where a worker has tested positive for COVID-19. The employer must map all areas where the infected employee traveled within the workplace and must clean those areas immediately. Other employees who had contact with the infected employee must be placed on paid leave at their regular rate of pay.

Trump Administration Scales Back Paid Leave Benefits Granted to Workers Through Emergency Act

Under new guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 75 percent of American workers could be excluded from the protections of the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, which Congress adopted last month to guarantee paid sick leave and family leave for workers affected by COVID-19.

“The Labor Department said that employers at companies with fewer than 50 workers had broad latitude to decline to offer the 12 weeks of paid leave that the law required for workers whose children were home from school or for child care because of the coronavirus pandemic,” The New York Times reported. “The legislation, which provides two weeks of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family leave, and reimburses employers for it with tax credits, already excludes workers at companies with more than 500 employees.”

“In all, more than 75 percent of American workers are at companies that qualify for exemptions from the law.”

Under the administrative guidance, small businesses cannot be exempted from providing paid leave for the employee’s own illness. Yet, small companies can deny paid leave to an employee to care for a child if the worker’s absence would “cause the small business to cease operating,” would pose “a substantial risk” to the company, or if there were not enough “willing, able, and qualified” workers to fill the worker’s job temporarily.

Health care providers, first responders, and some federal employees can also be denied paid leave under the guidance.

Legislators who advocated for the Act to expand paid leave wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia stating that the guidelines “violate Congressional intent” and “contradict the plain language” of the Act, the Times reported.

Scalia reportedly issued a statement declaring that the guidelines provide “unprecedented paid leave benefits to American workers affected by the virus, while ensuring that businesses are reimbursed.”

The Act reimburses private employers with tax credits for the cost of providing employees with paid leave related to COVID-19.

March 2020 National Jobs Update

(Notes: * Total employment for labor force is provided by the U.S. Census Household survey. The separate BLS Establishment survey measures non-farm jobs only; ** The March survey reference periods predated many coronavirus-related business and school closures in the second half of the month. Weekly initial jobless claims reports have shown 10 million new filings for unemployment insurance over the past two weeks. Additionally, it is believed that many household survey workers were classified as employed when they should have been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff during the survey period.)

The seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate rose to 4.4% in March 2020, up nearly a full percentage point from February, its highest level since August 2017 and the largest month-to-month increase since January 1975. Over the month, unemployment rolls increased by more than 1.3 million individuals, raising total unemployment to 7.1 million. This and the other changes to data provided in this update reflect some of the early effects of the coronavirus (please see the **note above). National unemployment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Unemployment – 7,140,000
  • Change Over Month –   UP   1,353,000
  • Change Over Year –   UP   946,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –    DOWN  378,000
  • Rate Change Over Month –   UP   0.9%
  • Rate Change Over Year –   UP   0.6%
  • Rate Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN   0.3%
  • Rate Change Over Obama 2nd Term –    DOWN  3.3%

As indicated above, total unemployment’s rounded percentage of the labor force, or unemployment rate, rose over the month (rate = unemployment / labor force). The labor force is the total number of employed individuals combined with the total number of unemployed individuals actively searching for work. Growth in the labor force can be a sign of a strengthening economy from more people working and/or more individuals searching for jobs. In March 2020, the national labor force declined by 1,633,000 individuals (the largest month-to-month decrease on record), a combination of total employment* falling by 2,987,000 individuals and total unemployment up by 1,353,000 individuals as noted above, lowering its total to roughly 162.9 million.
With the decrease in March 2020, growth in the national labor force over President Trumps term was reduced to 3.266 million individuals (unemployment -378,000 & employment +3.643 million). National labor force statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Labor Force – 162,913,000
  • Change Over Month –    DOWN  1,633,000
  • Change Over Year - DOWN   22,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –    UP   3,266,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   3,884,000

Non-farm* job rolls fell by 701,000 in March 2020, lowering total non-farm employment to 151.786 million. This marks the first month-to-month decrease since September 2010 and the largest month-to-month decline since March 2009. With the decrease, year-over-year non-farm job growth in March 2020 stands at 1.504 million. The decline in March lowered total non-farm employment growth over President Trumps term to 6.159 million, with an average of 162,000 new jobs added a month. National non-farm employment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Non-Farm Employment – 151,786,000
  • Change Over Month –   DOWN   701,000
  • Change Over Year –   UP   1,504,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   UP   6,159,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   10,364,000 (216,000/month)

As PA Unemployment Claims Soar, Labor Department Provides Application Information

Prior to the COVID-19 emergency, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry had never received more than 168,000 new unemployment compensation claims in a single month. In the last three weeks, the Commonwealth has received more than 1 million new claims.

Governor Wolf has issued a statewide Stay at Home Order for all Pennsylvania counties that took effect on April 1 at 8 p.m.

During a Telephone Town Hall hosted by Senator Tartaglione on April 2, Secretary of Labor & Industry Jerry Oleksiak said that the department is working multiple shifts each day and has reassigned an additional 100 employees from its tax unit to accept and process UC claims.

Under normal circumstances, it takes the department from two to four weeks to process UC claims. Due to the unprecedented influx of new claims, the current processing period is at the high end of that range, the secretary said. However, approved applicants will be paid retroactively from the first day of their separation from the job as the Commonwealth has waived the usual one-week waiting period for benefits during the COVID-19 emergency.

The department is maintaining a web page containing updated information for workers and employers affected by COVID-19. The department advises that the most effective way to file a UC claim is through the online application. Workers may also apply by phone. The answers to most questions can be found on the department’s website. Questions about a specific claim may be sent by email to Emails must include the applicant’s full name and last four digits of the applicant’s social security number. Duplicate or repetitive emails about the same issue may cause delays.

Displaced workers should apply for benefits immediately upon losing their jobs. Eligible applicants will be sent two letters and a four-digit PIN via U.S. Mail. If approved, your initial benefit payment should arrive within four weeks of filing for UC. Applicants should file their biweekly claim (every two weeks) while awaiting approval.
Information for Workers’ Compensation claims is also available on the Department of Labor website.

Under the recently enacted federal CARES Act, individuals receiving state unemployment benefits will be eligible for an additional $600 per week of unemployment for the period from March 29 through July 31. The Commonwealth is awaiting guidance from the federal government on how to issue the additional payments. Once the guidance is provided, the Commonwealth will begin issuing checks retroactive to March 28.

In addition, the federal CARES Act extended the typical eligibility term for state unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 39 weeks. It also granted benefits to self-employed workers, contractors, and gig economy workers who lost their jobs because of COVID-19. The Commonwealth is awaiting guidance from the federal government on these provisions. Individuals who were not eligible for state UC benefits previously should not apply for benefits until the federal government issues the guidance.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry will post updated information to its COVID-19 webpage.

Tartaglione to Host Bilingual Telephone Town Hall to Answer Questions About Coronavirus

Senator Tartaglione will continue her series of Telephone Town Halls on Wednesday, April 8, from 1:50 p.m.

This one-hour session will feature a guest physician who will respond to COVID-19/coronavirus questions in English and Spanish. Constituents will be able to call on any landline or mobile telephone and submit a question to be answered live. Callers may choose to listen to the informative discussion without submitting a question.

To register for the call and submit a question in advance, text “SENTARTAGLIONE” to 833-TXT-LIVE (833-898-5483). Follow the senator’s Facebook and Twitter pages or visit for additional Town Hall information.