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Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia Says the Impact of Coronavirus Like World War II

David Jelke

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Screenshot of Labor Sec. Eugene Scalia from the webinar

May 11, 2020 — The most challenging aspect of running the Department of Labor right now is “how fluid and shapeshifting it is,” Labor Sec. Eugene Scalia said on a Monday webinar hosted by the Consumer Technology Association.

Scalia traced a turbulent trajectory starting from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, describing how the department was first preoccupied with paid leave, then unemployment insurance and now with getting “an unprecedented wave” of people off of unemployment benefits as the economy begins to reopen.

Although the situation is moving rapidly, Scalia said he feels prepared for the job, citing his experience with different levels of policy and the economy at OSHA, with William Barr of the Department of Justice and in the private sector.

“Hopefully that’s of some comfort to people,” Scalia added.

Scalia addressed the country’s labor woes, calling Friday’s jobs report detailing a loss of 20.5 million jobs and a 14.7 percent unemployment rate a grim report.

“I don’t think the analogies to World War II are that misplaced,” he said.

However, Scalia emphasized that the data are not as grim as they initially appear, saying that many of the 20.5 million jobs reported lost are “still there,” since many of the so-called layoffs are just furloughs in disguise.

To emphasize the data, Scalia turned to a chart showing how permanent job losses pale in comparison to those in the 2008 Great Recession.

“That’s a good point,” said Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro.

Society for Human Resource Management CEO Johnny Taylor offered some words of cautious optimism on the webinar, saying that “this too shall pass.”

According to Taylor, the biggest concern with transitioning back into physical workplaces is public transportation.

Airplanes simply cannot accommodate the six feet of social distancing unless they only allow a small number of passengers on board, Taylor said, and will therefore need to come up with creative solutions.

Taylor also stressed the importance of mental health, referencing Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff’s recent claim that a staggering 37% of Salesforce employees have reported problems with mental health during remote working.

Under the “impact of forced isolation, we’re seeing employees really under stress,” Taylor said.

Taylor recommended that workers keep their skills sharp by taking online courses in areas relevant to the new economy. He recommended online courses through platforms like Coursera, Udacity and LinkedIn Learning.

At one point, Taylor turned to Shapiro. “Thank God for all the technology providers you represent,” he said. “Imagine what would happen if we weren’t able to transact business at some level remotely.”

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