Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Fox in the Henhouse, Episode 57: It's the Hens' Fault Again

October 26th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

See what happens when you put the foxes in charge of the henhouse? They have you believing that the hens’ demise is all their own doing. Just look at the Department of Labor’s strategic plan for the next five years. It’s probably not that much of a surprise that “training” is the buzzword in Elaine Chao’s Department of Labor. If only those pesky workers were properly trained, they’d all have high-paying jobs, there would be no unemployment, and health and safety issues would be a thing of the past. You see, all these problems are the fault of workers.

It sounds like a good thing for a government agency to have a 5-year strategic plan, although obviously, depending on the outcome of the 2008 elections, it might not be worth the paper it’s written on (or the megapixels it generates). The Department of Labor’s Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2006–2011 has four primary goals:

  • A Prepared Workforce
  • A Competitive Workforce
  • Safe and Secure Workplaces
  • Strengthened Economic Protections

All laudable goals, to be sure, but the question always is: what will the Agency do to achieve them? Here’s what Professor Richard Bales of the Workplace Profs Blog had to say: “My observation based on a quick glance: there’s a lot in here about worker training, but not much about enforcement of existing worker protection laws.” (See DOL Issues Strategic Plan.) Prof. Bales’ initial instincts are correct — reading 94 pages, even with lots of pictures and charts, doesn’t change that impression much. The report exemplifies the DOL’s current philosophy, euphemistically referred to in the report as a “balanced approach to protect the safety and health of America’s workers.”

I guess you could call it balanced, if your world view is that requiring businesses to comply with those pesky laws protecting workers by engaging in vigorous enforcement activity is out of whack. And that’s Secretary Chao’s world view. As she told a Washington audience earlier this year, “Often, people come into public service with a zeal to take immediate action. But, sometimes it’s not what you do but what you refrain from doing that is important.” (See Lexington Herald-Leader article.) (Hat tip to Confined Space for spotting this expose.)

So let’s refrain from helping coal miners emerge safely from the mines each day they work, why don’t we? When inspectors from the Mine Safety Health Administration — an agency under Chao’s jurisdiction — confronted millionaire coal magnate Bob Murray about safety problems at his mines, Murray supposedly shouted, “Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss.” (Secretary Chao is married to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell.) For more about Murray’s charm, see this United Mine Workers of America article — you gotta love the talking squirrel.

While Murray now denies making the statement, there’s no dispute that one of the MSHA officials he threatened, district manager Tim Thompson, was transferred to another region, away from Murray’s mines. Since Thompson had one of the few jobs where being in rural Appalachia is not a career hindrance, he appealed the transfer for three years until he had no choice but to take retirement in January. (See Lexington Herald-Leader article.)

Now a career coal company official with no history of safety is in charge of the MSHA, confirmed by virtue of a recess appointment, since the Senate wouldn’t confirm him. (I guess McConnell couldn’t whip his party caucus into shape on this one, but obviously it didn’t matter.) Richard Stickler worked for BethEnergy Mines of Pennsylvania for 30 years, whose mines had accident rates twice the national average. Stickler has told U.S. senators that current mine safety laws are “adequate.” (See Charleston Gazette editorial.) The New York Times isn’t so fond of Stickler either, pointing out that even (lame duck) Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist claimed he wouldn’t stand for a recess appointment, and that “[l]awmakers should demand a bulldog enforcement director rather than another industry lapdog.” (See New York Times editorial.)

It doesn’t stop there: Edwin Foulke, the head of OSHA, gave a speech commemorating North American Occupational Health and Safety Week called “Adults Do the Darndest Things.” His speech was essentially the workplace version of the Darwin Awards — implying that worker stupidity was responsible for many workplace injuries. Foulke comes to the agency from the law firm of Jackson Lewis, where he spent his career defending companies charged with OSHA violations. So we can expect that instead of heavily penalizing companies who violate OSHA standards, Foulke’s approach will be to blame the workers’ lack of training and their own stupidity for any “accidents” that happen.

And also courtesy of a recess appointment, we have Paul DeCamp heading the Wage and Hour Division, responsible for ensuring that workers are paid the wages they’re owed under law. Except that he’s never done that before in his career — instead he’s worked at a defense firm ensuring employers pay their workers as little as possible. Generally you don’t hire someone to run an agency who has so little experience accomplishing the agency’s mission, but it’s probably not going to be a problem. It’s probably the workers’ fault that they work so many hours when they know their employer doesn’t intend to pay them.

You’ll never see the following headers in the DOL Strategic Report, but perhaps they’d be more appropriate:

  • A Dead Workforce
  • A Maimed Workforce
  • An Unemployed Workforce
  • A Broke Workforce

But, it’s the workers’ own fault, really. I dare Elaine Chao to tell that to Randal McCloy. No, let me guess, Secretary Chao would just “refrain.”

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