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Undermining Worker Safety — Despite Laws and Shutdowns

February 4th, 2019 | Jordan Barab

Regulatory doo doo — to use the technical term — seems to be where the Department of Labor is finding itself these days.  And Democrats in Congress along with the Department of Labor’s Inspector General are not amused.

At the request of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Congresspersons Bobby Scott (D-VA), Mark Takano (D-CA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), DOL Inspector General Scott Dahl has agreed to Audit the Department of Labor’s regulator process. The main focus will be on the Wage and Hour Division’s proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to operate power-driven patient lifts in nursing homes without supervision, as well as OSHA’s recent decision to roll back parts of the agency’s electronic recordkeeping regulation.

Regulations (and OSHA standards) are important. Congress passes laws like the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Mine Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act, which give agencies a general mandate to protect workers and the environment. But regulations put meat on the bones of the laws. The OSHAct gives employers the legal responsibility to maintain safe workplaces and gived OSHA the authority to set standards and cite employers who violate those standard. And it’s the regulatory process that enables OSHA to issue those specific standards — like those protecting workers from falls, amputations, silica or asbestos exposure.

Rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

The business community and Republicans in Congress generally hate regulations, which is why you almost never hear them mention the word “regulation” without the words “job-killing” preceding it. In fact, rolling back “burdensome” regulations (along with cutting taxes and appointing more conservative federal judges) are the main reasons that otherwise more-or-less sane Republicans continue to support an ignorant, racist, malignant narcissist in the White House.

And there’s a process for issuing regulations and standards.  All government regulatory activity falls under the Administrative Procedure Act which ensures that agencies follow some basic steps when they issue new regulations or change existing regulations and lays out the basis for regulatory actions in the public record. New regulations or regulatory changes may not be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion” and must be based on evidence on the record. The Occupational Safety and Health Act has many additional rules for issuing OSHA standards.  Regulations that were not developed (or rolled back) according to proper administrative procedure can be struck down by the courts.

In addition, the Data Quality Act requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue government-wide guidelines that “provide policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.”

The legislators’ letter asked the Labor Department’s Inspector General (OIG) to investigate whether DOL had deviated from agency regulatory and data quality requirements when it issued the patient lift proposal. According to Deborah Berkowitz at the National Employment Law Project

In order to support this proposal, the Labor Department cited a ‘survey’ of Massachusetts vocational programs that purportedly demonstrated that the current policy ‘restricts’ young teens from being hired to work in nursing homes. Although the Department has ignored repeated requests from Congress and advocates to provide the survey for public review and comment, NELP has obtained a copy.

It became immediately clear why the Department wouldn’t produce the document. This seven-year-old survey, conducted using Survey Monkey, compiled responses from a scant 22 vocational programs in Massachusetts. Half the respondents did not even know what the policy was in the first instance.

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

And as Suzy Khimm at NBC News points out, the child labor proposal is not the only area in which DOL is having problems:

The Labor Department is facing legal challenges over other deregulatory actions affecting workers. Last week, the department undid an Obama-era regulation requiring certain employers to submit detailed reports of workplace injuries electronically, arguing that it risked violating workers’ privacy. Last year, the department made it easier for small businesses and self-employed people to buy health insurance that does not comply with the Affordable Care Act. Both changes have spurred lawsuits alleging that officials failed to follow legally required procedures for rule-making.

Dahl is already investigating the Labor Department’s handling of a proposal to allow restaurant managers and owners to take workers’ tips and place them in a tip-sharing pool that includes bosses. Bloomberg Law reported last year that the administration hid its own projection that the change would allow management to skim $640 million in gratuities. (The administration later backed off the change.)

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has come under criticism not only for how agencies regulate, but when the regulate. As we’ve noted several times before, OSHA — and apparently the White House — were in such a hurry to roll back OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule that they managed to rush it out right in the middle of the government shutdown.  As House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott said in a statement

“It is notable that despite the many important issues being neglected during this partial government shutdown, the administration found time to finalize a rule that shields employers from accountability for the health and safety of their employees. President Trump pledged to defend the American worker, but this is yet another decision that violates that promise.”

OIRA decided that it was allowed to move regulatory actions forward during the shutdown as long as the regulatory actions came from a funded agency (like the Department of Labor).  Some find that interpretation rather dubious. Quoted in Government Executive, Sam Berger, an attorney who worked for OMB during the 2013 shutdown now with the Center for American Progress,

pointed to the shutdown procedure standard being used in the Federal Register, as published in a bulletin by the National Archives and Records Administration. Under the Jan. 14 Justice Department guidance, he said in an email to Government Executive, “funded agencies [must show] delaying publication until the end of the [shutdown] would prevent or significantly damage the execution of funded functions at the agency.”

For OIRA, he said, the standard “is the same for any part of government that isn’t funded, but that works with funded agencies. If the rule is excepted (for example, necessary to protect life and property) then OIRA can bring staff on to review,” he added, arguing that OIRA can’t justify bringing back furloughed employees to process the OSHA rule. If the agency is funded (as is the Labor Department), “then OIRA can only bring staff on if not moving forward with the rule during the shutdown would prevent or undermine the funded function.”

The bottom line is that in this administration, when it comes to undermining worker safety and health, neither shutdowns, nor furloughs, nor well-established federal laws governing regulation can stop or even slow the priorities of the business community.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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