Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Department of Labor’

A Dark Veil

Friday, July 20th, 2018

The Trump administration on Tuesday rescinded the Department of Labor’s “persuader rule” requiring companies to disclose any consultants or lawyers contracted for anti-union persuasion efforts. The most recent in a series of anti-worker regulatory rollbacks, the decision has drawn harsh condemnation from union leaders and working people.

When the Labor Department issued the rule in 2016, it was hailed as a win for workplace transparency. Workers would have the right to know when their bosses hired outside union-busters to influence organizing decisions.

Then-Secretary of Labor Tom Perez explained it would “ensure that workers have the information they need to make informed decisions about exercising critical workplace rights….Informed decisions are the best decisions.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, AFL-CIO National Media Director Josh Goldstein slammed the administration’s decision to shield the “sinister practices of employers and their hired guns.”

“By repealing the persuader rule, the Department of Labor is siding with corporate CEOs against good government and transparency,” Goldstein said. “They have thrown a dark veil over the shady groups employers hire to take away the freedoms of working people.”

This blog was originally published at the AFL-CIO on July 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Kavanaugh: Threat to Workers and to OSHA

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

While most of the discussion of President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court focuses on the possibility that he will be the deciding vote to repeal Rowe v. Wade or that the will bend over backwards to help Trump out of the Russia investigation, there is clear evidence that Kavanaugh is overly friendly to corporate America, and hostile to workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the environment.

In 2010 a killer whale dismembered and drowned a Sea World trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of hundreds of horrified men, women and children looking forward to a day of fun and frolic with sea animals. The whale that killed Brancheau had been implicated in three previous human deaths.

OSHA issued a $70,000 willful General Duty Clause Citation against Sea World and ordered the company to reduce the hazard by physically separating trainers from the whales. OSHA proved that Sea World and its employees knew from previous incidents and close calls that the all of its killer whales were dangerous, and that Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, was particularly dangerous.  Experts also described a feasible means of protecting employees — actions that Sea World in fact implemented following Brancheau’s death.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld OSHA’s citation, and Sea World appealed to the Court of Appeals. The D.C. Circuit court decided 2-1 in favor of OSHA. The Court found that  “There was substantial record evidence that Sea World recognized its precautions were inadequate to prevent serious bodily harm or even death to its trainers and that the residual hazard was preventable,” and that there was substantial evidence that there were feasible means to protect employees without impacting the business. The majority opinion upholding OSHA’s action was written by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers. Also supporting OSHA was Chief Judge Merrick Garland.

The lone dissenter, opposing OSHA’s citation, was Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

According to former OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, “In his dissent in the Sea World decision, Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.”

Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.  —  David Michaels

Garland, as you may remember was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, infamously refused to consider Obama’s nomination, allowing Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Court. And the lead attorney representing Sea World was Eugene Scalia, son of deceased Justice Antonin Scalia.

Are Whale Shows A Sport Like Football?

Kavanaugh calls OSHA’s action “arbitrary and capricious” because regulating the safety of killer whale shows is allegedly no different than regulating the safety of tackling in football, or speeding in sports car racing, or punching in boxing — things in which OSHA has never involved itself.  And just as you’d have no football if you didn’t have tackling, or no sports car racing if you didn’t have speeding, there would allegedly be no Sea World if there was no close human contact with killer whales.

One problem with this argument, as Rogers points out, is that no one — except Kavanaugh — claims that whale shows are a sport where you are there to see who “wins.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, people go to boxing matches to watch people punch each other, and go to football games to watch one team physically stop the other from scoring. But tourists — including small children — go to Sea World to watch attractive trainers lovingly interact with adorable sea creatures. Killer whale shows are not supposed to be modern gladiatorial contests where the audience looks forward to seeing whether the trainers will successfully keep their limbs attached or finish the show bleeding and dead at the bottom of a pool.

Not even Sea World made the football/car racing/boxing analogy, Rogers and Garland point out. By making that argument, Kavanaugh is just makin’ stuff up — adding his own opinions on matters that weren’t even part of the case.

Second, as the majority opinion points out, “physical contact between players is ‘intrinsic’ to professional football in a way that it is not to a killer whale show.” Spectators can take pleasure from a whale jumping out of the water and doing back flips even without close personal contact with a human trainer.

In fact, the show went on even after the OSHA citation. Following Brancheau’s death, Sea World implemented many of the controls that OSHA recommended in its General Duty Clause citation — and still managed to attract customers to the park — and even to the killer whale shows — without the close personal contact.

Hostility Toward OSHA

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. Comparing killer whale shows to football, boxing, car racing, as well  as other “extremely dangerous” sports such as “Ice hockey. Downhill skiing. Air shows. The circus. Horse racing. Tiger taming. Standing in the batter’s box against a 95 mile per hour fastball….” etc., etc., Kavanaugh objects to OSHA’s “paternalistic” intervention because “the participants in those activities want to take part.”

And then goes on to state (cue the heroic music)

To be fearless, courageous, tough – to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk – is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities. American spectators enjoy watching these amazing feats of competition and daring, and they pay a lot to do so.

He then asks:

When should we as a society paternalistically decide that the participants in these sports and entertainment activities must be protected from themselves – that the risk of significant physical injury is simply too great even for eager and willing participants? And most importantly for this case, who decides that the risk to participants is too high?

Not “the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Labor,” according to Kavanaugh.

Happily, Garland and Rogers were more knowledgeable about the Occupational Safety and Heath Act than Kavanaugh. They point out that the OSHAct puts the duty on the employer to create a safe workplace, not on the employees to choose whether or not they want to risk death — especially when the employer can make the workplace safer.

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.  Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.  Maybe the worker even liked doing dangerous work.  Employers also escaped responsibility by showing that the worker was somehow negligent. (Interestingly, Sea World originally blamed Brancheau for her own death because she hadn’t tied her hair back.)

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.

Rogers and Garland were forced to remind Kavanaugh that the employer’s duty under the OSHAct isn’t reduced by “such common law doctrines as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, or comparative negligence.”

Workers Comp laws, originally passed in the early 20th century, were supposed to be no-fault. It didn’t matter who was at fault, if the worker was hurt, the worker got compensated.  And the OSHAct, passed in 1970, further states clearly and unequivocally that the employer is responsible for ensuring that the workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees,” and sets up a mechanism to enforce the law and penalize employers who violated it.  Even if the macho employee wants to defy death, the law states that the workers may not work at heights without fall protection or go down into deep trenches without shoring. And it’s the employer’s job to make sure that employees are not endangered.

Did Brancheau enjoy her job? Undoubtedly.

Did she “willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job?”  Unlikely. And legally irrelevant.

Did she deserve a safe workplace? Absolutely.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

Kavanaugh also objected to OSHA’s citation because the agency allegedly “departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena.”

Well, first, Congress put the General Duty Clause into the OSHAct to address “unique” recognized hazards for which there is no OSHA standard.

Second, objecting to OSHA “storming into a new arena” brings back memories of the arguments used by previous OSHA heads, politicians and the health care industry when unions petitioned the agency in the late 1980’s for a bloodborne pathogens standard to prevent HIV infection and over 300 health care worker deaths a year from hepatitis B. At that time, infectious diseases were “a new regulatory arena.” Thankfully, Judge (or Justice) Kavanaugh wasn’t around then to rule on that standard. Thousands of health care workers owe their lives to OSHA’s move into the “new regulatory arena” of infectious diseases.

Bad for the Environment

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reminds us that Kavanaugh is not only anti-worker (and anti-OSHA), but also anti-environment (and anti-EPA). In 2011, Kavanaugh was the lone dissenter in a case where Arch Coal had challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to cancel a mountain-top removal permit that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 2,300-acre Spruce operation that would have buried more than seven miles of streams.  “The EPA cited the growing scientific evidence that mountaintop removal mining significantly damages water quality downstream and noted an independent engineering study that found Arch Coal could have greatly reduced the Spruce Mine’s impact.”

Kavanaugh’s argument is that EPA didn’t do a proper cost benefit analysis. Suddenly becoming a champion of working people and unions (at least when it benefits the company), Kavanaugh argued that EPA had failed to factor in the costs of  putting more than 300 United Mine Workers union members out of work.  Once again, Kavanaugh was making stuff up (legally). Arch Coal hadn’t even made that argument.

Kavanaugh also criticized the agency’s examination of potential damage to aquatic life as an “utterly one-sided analysis.” Perhaps the fish had also “accepted the risk” of living in streams near coal deposits.

One of the judges in the majority was an Ronald Reagan pick, and the other was appointed by President Obama.

Conclusion

Kavanaugh stated at last night’s press conference that one of his legal principles is that “A judge must interpret statutes as written.”  He might have added that to interpret the law as written, one must first read and understand the law.

He also warmly told the world that his mother was a prosecutor whose trademark line was: “‘Use your common sense. ‘What rings true? What rings false?’ That’s good advice for a juror and for a son. ”

Indeed it is. And maybe he could explain to the parents and husband of Dawn Brancheau why it rings false to him that the company responsible for their daughter’s safety should be held responsible for her death —  and held to the same standard as every other employer in the country.

Until he does that, he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

When Workers Don’t Get Paid: 3 Contributors to Wage Theft

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Wage theft, sometimes known as time theft against employees, has been in the news a lot lately. That’s due to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and another by Elizabeth Tippett of the University of Oregon, featured on NPR’s Planet Money podcast.

Recently, TSheets, a time tracking software company, ran a survey of their own. Their survey found just under 10 percent of employers admit to taking time off employee timesheets every day. Over 60 percent of those take off 30 minutes per day or more. Applied to the broader, hourly workforce across the U.S., TSheets estimates workers are losing out on $22 billion in earnings each year. Here are three known factors contributing to those billions lost.

Wage theft contributor 1: Unpaid breaks

The government has some stipulations in place when it comes to breaks for meals, namely “The employee must be fully relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.”

The trouble is, some employees, particularly those in the healthcare or education sector, aren’t often able to walk away from their work completely. They end up working straight through their lunch, even while clocked out. For them, it’s tough to take time off when part of their performance, and potentially their compensation, is based on their responsiveness.

The best solution — both from an employee perspective and from employers who want to avoid an expensive FLSA lawsuit — is to figure out how to accommodate employee breaks, so individuals are free to take advantage of that time of rest. At the very least, employers should be talking to employees and getting their input on how to improve the situation.

Wage theft contributor 2: Timesheet rounding

Timesheet rounding is a setting in time tracking software that rounds an employee’s time when they clock in or out to the nearest minute, five minutes, or 15 minutes. It’s common for an admin to set up rounding to the nearest minute, as payroll solutions like QuickBooks aren’t set up to process seconds.

But whether a company rounds to the nearest minute or the nearest 15 minutes isn’t the problem. It’s the direction in which the rounding occurs. Say an employer has set timesheet rounding to go up to the nearest five minutes when an employee clocks in, but down to the nearest five minutes when an employee clocks out. When the employee comes in at 8:31, the timesheet shows 8:35. When they clock out at 5:04, the timesheet shows 5:00. That employee has missed out on 8 minutes of paid time.

This problem becomes all the more challenging when the time tracker is set to round to the nearest 15 minutes. On this matter, the U.S. Department of Labor states employers cannot always round down. “Employee time from one to seven minutes may be rounded down, and thus not counted as hours worked, but employee time from eight to 14 minutes must be rounded up and counted as a quarter hour of work time. See Regulations 29 CFR 785.48(b).”

Wage theft contributor 3: Unpaid overtime

Did you know it’s illegal to withhold wages, even when those wages include overtime an employee has worked without consent or prior approval from a manager? The Department of Labor makes it very clear that “work not requested, but suffered or permitted is work time.” That means it doesn’t matter if the employee worked when they weren’t supposed to — they must be paid for the time they put in.

Many employers are also unaware that some travel time is considered eligible for overtime pay. For instance, while the time spent commuting from work to home or vice versa shouldn’t be counted, the commute from home to a job in the case of an emergency could be. Travel made on behalf of work, in some instances, also has the potential to be counted as overtime.

Wage theft conclusions

Wage theft is a complicated issue, and it’s one that employees and the lawyers, HR personnel, and union reps who represent them should be educated on. If you suspect an employer is taking wages from employees, it’s a good idea to contact your state’s labor agency to learn more about wage theft claims in your state.

Next, employees should try to find out if their employer rounds timesheets (and in which direction), in addition to documenting all hours they’re supposed to be paid and comparing those times to the ones listed on their paystubs. If the numbers don’t line up, it might be time for a conversation.

Everyone deserves to be paid for the time they put in. When employers intentionally or unintentionally violate that right, it isn’t just morally reprehensible — it’s against the law.

About the Author: Danielle Higley is a copywriter for TSheets by QuickBooks, a time tracking and scheduling solution. She has a BA in English literature and has spent her career writing and editing marketing materials for small businesses. Last year, she started an editorial consulting company.

Today’s Bad Idea: Merge Labor and Education Departments

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.

While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”

Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change.  In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.

In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.

We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.

Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”

While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.”  And of course, draining the swamp:

“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.

Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.

And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education,  training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.

Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”

The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:

This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.

So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions.  Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.)  Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”

This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Full of Surprises: OSHA Spring Regulatory Agenda Released

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

When Spring is in the air, this man’s fancy turns to (where else?) the 2018 Spring Regulatory Agenda to discover  what movement OSHA will be planning to move forward (or backward) to protect American workers from injury, illness and death in the workplace.

And the news is not totally bad this time around.

The good news from the new Regulatory Agenda is that OSHA has moved several items from the Long Term Agenda to the Short Term Agenda — Emergency Response and Preparedness, an Update to the Hazard Communication Standard, Tree Care, and Preventing Workplace Violence in Health Care and Social Assistance.  The Long Term Agenda generally means that the next major action (such as an official proposal) is more than a year in the future, either because the item has been deliberates sentenced to purgatory, or because there is simply too much work to get to the next major stage within a year. (Katie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform has put together this handy chart to save your eyesight and help with translation.)

The other good news is that nothing was removed from OSHA’s Regulatory Agenda. Previously, the Trump administration had removed such important items as combustible dust, noise in construction, several chemical standards and protections for workers at risk from being backed over by construction vehicles.

SBREFA: One Step Forward

The Labor Department has announced an ambitious schedule of OSHA small business review (SBREFA) panels for the next year covering  Communication Tower Safety (May 2018), Emergency Response (October 2018), Workplace Violence (February 2019) a Hazard Communication Standard update (February 2019), Tree Care (April 2019).

SBREFA is a process where OSHA and the Small Business Administration’s Small  Business Advocacy office organize panels of “Small Entity Representatives” (SERs) — actual small business owners or health and safety staff — to discuss the impact of a possible standard on their industry based on preliminary economic and feasibility information compiled by OSHA. Based on the comments of the SERs, OSHA and SBA issue a report within four months of initiation of the panel, which informs the next major stage of the regulatory process — the proposal.

The SBREFA process was created under the Gingrich Congress in the mid-90s to provide small businesses with a first bite of the regulatory apple. (One might ask why the normal public comment process doesn’t provide the same opportunity, and why labor wasn’t also given a similar early bite?)  SERs generally advise OSHA that no new standard is needed, thank you very much. But they also frequently provide some useful information that OSHA later uses to tweak the proposal to address some small business concerns.

Now, this is a pretty darn ambitious regulatory schedule — five SBREFA panels in a year — especially for an anti-regulatory Republican administration. That is certainly a good thing, and especially good to see workplace violence among those panels. But there are several caveats that need to be raised.

First, I’m a more-than-a-bit skeptical they can keep to this schedule — especially since the first one is scheduled for this month.  Given the work involved here, the other smaller items OSHA is moving forward on, and the resources being put into deregulatory actions on beryllium and recordkeeping, plus the 10% cut sustained by the standards budget last year, it’s hard to see them keeping to this schedule. On the other hand, we’ve seen no forward movement on any regulatory items in the first 16 months of this administration, so it’s possible that significant preparatory work has been going on behind the scenes.

The second caveat is that these are only SBREFA panels.  The next major step is an actual proposal, which contains a proposed regulatory text and several hundred pages of “preamble” with in-depth analysis of significant risk, economic and technological feasibility. Written comments on the proposal are then solicited and a hearing is generally held — a hearing that can last days or weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the proposed standard.

Depending on the size and complexity of the standard, it can often take one to three years to get from SBREFA to a proposed standard, and then several years to get to a final standard from there.

In addition, don’t forget Trump’s “One in/Two out” Executive Order (EO) that requires agencies to repeal two standards or regulations of equal cost for every one that’s added.  While I have yet to see this EO invoked, it is assumed that the agency would have to determine which two standards are going to be revoked by the time they get to the proposal stage. Given that it takes almost as much work to revoke an old standard as it does to issue a new standard, OSHA would essentially be forced to conduct three rulemakings (one for the new rule, and two for the revoked rules) for every new rule it wants to add.  And all that is assuming that the agency can figure out which protections workers will lose when, for example, communications tower workers gain protections.

The bottom line is that none of these new standards are likely to see the light of day during this Presidential term. But any forward movement is always welcome.

There are a few small items — revisions, corrections and small updates — that are moving to the proposal and final stages — the most significant of which is the long-awaited fourth iteration of the Standards Improvement Project (SIPS) where small improvements and updates are made to numerous standards in a single rulemaking.

And Two Steps Back

Still languishing on the long term agenda are OSHA standards dealing with infectious disease and Process Safety Management which covers safety in chemical plants. Both of these had SBREFA panels during the Obama administration  They’re both fairly major rules which means a) they involve quite a bit of work to get to the proposal stage, b) OSHA budget cuts will slow the process further, and c) given their likely cost, this administration will undoubtedly be reluctant to move forward on them and hard-pressed to find protections of equal cost to remove. Slow movement on the infectious disease standard is especially disappointing considering news of another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo., a recent severe flu season and the coming of mosquito season as the weather warms.

The bad news, of course, is that the most significant regulatory movement by OSHA continues to be in reverse with a proposal undermining beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, delay in full implementation of the beryllium standard for general industry employees and a proposal to roll back some provisions of the electronic recordkeeping standard, which OSHA is predicting for sometime in July.

The National Employment Law Project also points out DOL backsliding in protection of young workers, action at the Department of Agriculture weakening protections for meat processing workers and EPA’s actions that could result in more worker exposure to toxic pesticides.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Acosta Refuses To Commit to Preserving OSHA Recordkeeping Rule

Friday, April 13th, 2018

In a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee today, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta today refused to commit not to rescind OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule. The rule, issued in 2016, requires employers to send injury and illness information into OSHA and prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries.

The electronic recordkeeping rule has three major parts, two of which are in effect.

First, it required employers to send in a summary of their injury and illness data (form 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) by December 15. A second submission (including information on Form 300 and Form 301), providing more detail about how workers were injured, was scheduled to be submitted later this year. Finally, the rule prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries or illnesses.  OSHA’s intent when the rule was issued was to public post on its website the individual employer data to ensure that workers and the public were aware of companies’ health and safety record. No confidential or personally identifiable information would be submitted to OSHA or posted publicly.

Over the past year, Trump’s OSHA as announced that it’s working on revising the rule. While it had been assumed that the Trump administration was mostly interested in repealing the requirement to send in the more detailed data, rumors have been circulating that an effort is being made to repeal the entire rule.

Yes or No?

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) asked Acosta at this morning’s hearing whether Acosta thought it was important for OSHA to have access to accurate injury and illness data in order to target its limited resources to the most dangerous resources.

After agreeing that such data was in fact important, Acosta was asked whether he planned to rescind the rule, yes or no?

Acosta responded that “Yes or no answers are somewhat difficult on this,” but “it is also important to respect he privacy of individuals and employees” and then, without answering Baldwin’s question, proceeded to filibuster the time with a long discussion about the non-existent issue of confidentiality.

In short, “yes or now answers” should not difficult in this case, nor is confidentiality a real issue.

First, the deadline for sending in the summary data on OSHA form 300A has already passed (although a large number of employers failed to comply), and as is evident from the form, there is no private data about any individuals.  The more detailed information was to be sent to OSHA by July 1, 2018, but that date has been delayed indefinitely while OSHA determines how to modify the regulation.

While employers do include Personally Identifiable Information (PII) on their in-house forms 300 and 301, that information was not required to be submitted to OSHA or would have been automatically scrubbed out of the submission. When the regulation was released, the agency announced that:

OSHA has effective safeguards in place to prevent the disclosure of personal or confidential information contained in the recordkeeping forms and submitted to OSHA. OSHA will not collect employee name, employee address, name of physician or other health care professional, or healthcare facility name and address if treatment was given away from the worksite.  All of the case specific narrative information in employer reports will be scrubbed for PII using software that will search for, and de-identify, personally identifiable information before the data are posted.

So, what we’re seeing here is not a concern about employee privacy, but an effort by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-OSHA lobby to kill the rule.

So, what we’re seeing here is not a concern about employee privacy, but an effort by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-OSHA lobby to kill the rule because they’re afraid that if OSHA collects injury or illness information about companies’ health and safety record, the companies’ information — not the PII — will eventually be publicly released. And that won’t look good for those companies with poor health and safety records. Transparency is great — unless it hurts your bottom line.

In addition, as Baldwin suggested and Acosta acknowledged, the injury and illness data would be used to enable OSHA to target the most dangerous industries. Now that makes sense. OSHA is a tiny agency able to visit only a very small number of workplaces each year, so it makes sense that those inspections focus on the most high hazard industries, and the most dangerous companies within those high hazard industries.  No one wants to waste OSHA’s time, the taxpayer’s money, or an employer’s time inspecting a company that’s doing everything right. If possible, you want to use the data to get to those companies that are putting workers at risk.

But of course, if you happen to be one of those companies whose putting workers at risk, or a company in a high hazard industry, maybe you’re not so interested in OSHA targeting your industry. Better they waste their time wandering around aimlessly, reducing even further the small chance that you’ll ever be inspected.

So could Acosta have said “No, the rule will not be repealed, although as we have already announced, we’re working on modifying it?”  Yes.

Unless they’re really considering a complete repeal.

OSHA Inspections

Acosta proudly informed the Committee in his opening remarks that “The number of inspections conducted in 2017 increased year over year for the first time in five years despite OSHA’s suspension of enforcement activities to provide more compliance assistance and facilitate the provision of personal protective equipment during the hurricane recovery in areas affected by natural disasters this year.”

And, in fact, the number of inspections did increase by a few hundred in FY 2017.  A good thing? Yes and no.

I have nothing against increasing the number of inspections. Thirty-two thousand inspections is a small number considering the huge number of workplaces under OSHA’s jurisdiction, so the more the better.

But, there are some problems with that. Because how many inspections is not the only question. One must also ask what kind of inspections?  A little background:

Career government employees, and especially OSHA staff, are good soldiers. Give them a numerical goal and if at all possible, they’ll meet it by hook or by crook. So if the Secretary of Labor demands that you increase the number of inspections, even though a hiring freeze has caused critical staffing shortages, you go for the short, easy inspections — usually a lot of short construction inspections. And you spend a lot of time out in the field inspecting at the end of the Fiscal Year, and then stay in the office and do all the paperwork at the beginning of the next Fiscal Year.

During the Obama administration, we decided to do something a bit different. We decided to prioritize the type and quality of inspections over the pure number. Because if you’re focusing on short easy inspection to get some numbers up on the board, you may be neglecting the more complex investigations that may be more significant in the big picture — workplace violence, ergonomics, chemical plant inspections — those that may take a long time but are important to do.   We did this by counting “enforcement units” instead of just the number of inspections, and assigning more “enforcement units” to the more difficult inspections so that inspectors or offices wouldn’t be penalized for taking on the more difficult projects.

So I find Acosta’s emphasis on numbers to be ironic, because the typical Republican criticism of OSHA is that it plays a “gotcha” game — just putting citations up on the board. Which is exactly what this administration seems to be doing.   And I understand it. It certainly plays better in Congress to say you did more inspections than that Democrats.

They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced. — Alex Acosta

The good news is that Acosta again emphasized the importance of enforcement when asked by Committee Chairman Roy Blunt why the Administration had recommended flat budgets or slight increases for DOL enforcement agencies. Acosta responded that

Those are priorities. These laws matter. They’ve been passed by Congress. They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced. The men and women of the Department of Labor need the resources to enforce them  Over time even if budgets remain flat, life gets more expensive. And so we’ve asked for slight increases to continue the efforts that we’ve done this year. Because as I’ve said, enforcement matters.

Hard to argue with those words.

Tipping Over

Finally, as I mentioned the other day, the fireworks over Acosta’s tipping ruleallowing employers to steal servers’ tips evaporated when Congress included a bill prohibiting tip stealing in the FY 2018 budget bill. Acosta had come under withering attack for not including a damaging economic analysis in the proposal that would have estimated how much money servers would have lost.

But the fix passed in March and everyone congratulated each other and patted each other on the back and sang Kumbaya over this great (and rare) example of everyone working together in perfect harmony.

But Acosta couldn’t quite let it go. He needed to “just put it on the record…”

Taking up the Chairman’s offer for a few parting words at the end of the hearing, Acosta reminded everyone that when the original regulation was issued in 2011, the Obama administration also didn’t include an quantitative economic analysis. (Which was not required because the 2011 version did not make any changes in current practice.) He then went to great lengths to explain again how complicated an analysis was and how they could have made some “wildly crazy” assumptions to come up with a number, but that wouldn’t have served the public interest and Obama did the same thing no one got upset, so that’s “indicative of an unfortunate state of affairs that we’re at,” and anyway employers wouldn’t have kept tips anyway because no one would eat there and employees would walk out  but that’s why I’m happy that we all worked together and we had a happy ending.

And to all a good night.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on April 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Legislation from DeLauro and Clark Would Strengthen Protections for Tipped Workers

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

As we reported in January, President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor is proposing a rule change that would mean restaurant servers and bartenders could lose a large portion of their earnings. The rule would overturn one put in place by the Barack Obama administration, which prevents workers in tipped industries from having their tips taken by their employers. Under the new rule, business owners could pay their waitstaff and bartenders as little as $7.25 per hour and keep all tips above that amount without having to tell customers what happened.

An independent analysis estimates this rule would steal $5.8 billion from the pockets of workers each year. A whopping $4.6 billion of that would come out of the pockets of working women. This is bigger than simply the well-deserved tips of restaurant workers. This is another example of extreme legislators, greedy CEOs and corporate lobbyists uniting in opposition to working people. They want to further rig the economic playing field against workers, people of color and women.

Last week, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) offered up legislation that will strengthen protections for tipped workers and secure tips as the property of the workers who earn them. Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta indicated that he will support Congress’ legislative efforts to stop companies from claiming ownership over tips instead of the workers who earn them.

Hundreds of thousands of you already have spoken out, sending comments of opposition to the rule straight to the Labor Department. It’s time for us to take the next step together. We can hold Trump’s Department of Labor accountable and make sure that Congress hears our opposition to this ridiculous and unfair change. Take action, and tell Acosta to support amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act that will secure tips as the property of workers and oppose Trump’s rule legalizing wage theft.

Alaska will no longer allow workers with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

As of Friday, Alaskan businesses will no longer be allowed to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage, which is currently $9.84 an hour.

“Workers who experience disabilities are valued members of Alaska’s workforce,” said the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development Acting Commissioner Greg Cashen, in a press release. “They deserve minimum wage protections as much as any other Alaskan worker.”

The state announced last week it would repeal the regulation first put in place in 1978. Alaska joins New Hampshire and Maryland as the first states to get rid of sub-minimum wage for employees with disabilities, an act which is entirely legal under federal law, and has been since 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was implemented.

The minimum wage exception was initially created to help those with disabilities get jobs, but despite its intentions, the legislation still fell short. Disability advocates argue the law is outdated and that many disabled individuals can succeed in jobs earning minimum wage or more, and that no other class of people faces this kind of government-sanctioned wage discrimination. In addition to being paid a sub-minimum wage, employees with disabilities often perform their jobs in what are called “sheltered workshops.” This term is generally used to describe facilities that employ people with disabilities exclusively or primarily, but has been interpreted by disability advocates as a form of segregation in the workplace.

Goodwill Industries is arguably one of the biggest offenders when it comes to exploiting this kind of wage discrimination. The company is one of the largest employers for people with disabilities, many of whom are contracted by Goodwill through the government’s AbilityOne program, which ensures contracts are set aside for places that employ workers with disabilities.

Goodwill, however, is a $5.59 billion organization, and many argue they can afford to pay all of their workers a fair wage.

“You’ve got entities that are doing quite well, that are raking in donations, that get government contracts to make everything from military uniforms to…pens to whatever,” says Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind told The Nation. “They get these contracts, and they’re paying their workers less than the minimum wage.”

Goodwill’s own CEO, Jim Gibbons, is blind. In 2015, he raked in more than $712,000 in salary and additional compensation while his disabled employees were making less than $9 an hour in some states.

In a comment to NBC News in 2013, Gibbons defended his salary and the million dollar salaries of other Goodwill executives. At the time, Goodwill’s total compensation for all its franchise CEOs was more than $30 million.

“These leaders are having a great impact in terms of new solutions, in terms of innovation, and in terms of job creation,” he said.

Speaking of those employees with disabilities working for less than minimum wage, he punted. “It’s typically not about their livelihood. It’s about their fulfillment. It’s about being a part of something. And it’s probably a small part of their overall program,” he added.

 Just last week, disability activists were dealt a blow by the House of Representatives, which voted 225 to 192 in favor of a bill that would significantly weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, letting businesses off the hook for failing to provide accessibility accommodations.

Twenty-two percent of Americans live with some form of disability and 13 percent of those experience mobility issues, such as walking or climbing stairs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The share of people with disabilities is higher among women and people of color: according to the CDC, one in four women have a disability and three in 10 non-Latinx Black people have a disability.

One in three adults who are able to work have reported having a disability, and half of those making less than $15,000 a year have reported a disability as well, according to the CDC’s numbers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.

Trump administration tip-stealing plan is getting hammered

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

The Trump Labor Department’s proposal to let bosses steal workers’ tips—$5.8 billion of them—is under heavy fire. After news broke that the department hid the data showing how bad the plan would be for workers, House Democrats demanded that the Labor Department show its work:

Four House Democrats, in an oversight letter sent Feb. 2 to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, asked the DOL to fork over copies of all analyses completed as part of the tip pool rulemaking process. […]

In addition to demands for the DOL to divulge its analyses, the Democrats want a copy of all communication between the DOL and White House Office of Management and Budget pertaining to the quantitative economic analysis.

And the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General said it was reviewing what happened and how. And 17 state attorneys general filed a letter opposing the rule change:

If implemented, the rescission would greatly harm millions of employees in the United States who depend on tips and would create the real potential for customers to be deceived as to whom will receive and benefit from their tips.

The tip-stealing proposal is also unpopular with the public: a poll conducted for the National Employment Law Project found 82 percent of people opposed.

None of this means that Trump’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, is going to back down. But once again the Trump administration is making clear where it stands—definitely not with workers.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on February 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Labor Department scrubbed analysis that said its proposal would rob billions from workers

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

The Department of Labor decided to scrub an analysis from its proposal affecting tipped workers after it found workers would be robbed of billions of dollarsaccording to former and current department sources who spoke to Bloomberg Law.

In December, the Labor Department proposed a rule that rescinded portions of Obama-administration tip regulations and would allow employers who pay the minimum wage to take workers’ tips. The department said the proposed rule would allow “back of the house” workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, who don’t typically receive tips, to be part of a tip-sharing pool. But the rule also wouldn’t prevent employers from just keeping the tips and not redistributing them.

The department never offered any estimate to the public of the amount of tips that would be shifted from workers to employers. The work of analyzing costs and benefits to proposed rules is legally required for the rulemaking process, Economic Policy Institute noted. EPI did its own analysis and found that tipped workers would lose $5.8 billion a year in tips as a result of this rule. Women in tipped jobs would lose $4.6 billion annually.

After seeing the annual projection showing that billions of dollars would transfer from tipped workers to their employers, senior department officials told staff to revise the methodology to lessen the impact, according to Bloomberg Law. After staff changed the methodology, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were still not satisfied with the analysis, so they removed it from the proposal, with the approval of the White House.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for improvement of wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers, has opposed the proposed rule and said it would push a majority-women workforce “further into financial instability.”

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Washington Post in December that “the administration is giving a windfall to restaurant owners out of the pockets of tipped workers.”

A department spokesman told Bloomberg Law that the department would likely publish an “informed cost benefit analysis” as part of any final rule but did not answer the reporter’s question about why the department wouldn’t allow the public to react to the analysis it created. The spokesman also claimed the department is acting in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute governing the ways agencies move forward with regulations. Two purposes of the APA is to make sure there is public participation in the rulemaking process, including by allowing public commenting and make sure the public is informed of rules. The public only has until Feb. 5 to comment on the proposal without viewing the department analysis. But the public could view the Economic Policy Institute analysis created to replace the department’s shelved one.

Some senior attorneys at worker rights’ groups say that the lack of analysis could violate the APA if the department publishes the full analysis with the final rule, as the spokesman said it would, but doesn’t do so during its proposal. That would prove that the department could have created the analysis earlier but decided not to, lawyers told Bloomberg Law last week.

This wouldn’t be the first time the administration has been accused of not properly adhering to the ADA.  Many states are claiming the administration violated some part of the Administrative Procedure Act. Only a couple weeks into Trump’s presidency, Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America sought to overturn an executive order mandating that federal agencies eliminate two regulations for every regulation they create. The executive order also required that net costs of regulations on people and businesses be $0 in 2017.

The groups argued that this clearly violates a clause the APA. Judge Randolph Moss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard arguments in the lawsuit in August and said, “It’s like a shadow regulatory process on top of the regulatory process.” However, it’s not clear if the rule has been implemented in practice. Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Communications Workers of America are still waiting on a ruling.

Economists, labor experts, and worker advocates from the National Employment Law Project, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ROC United, and the Economic Policy Institute reacted to the news with outrage.

Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former Chief Economist to Vice President Joseph Biden, said he has developed a “high outrage bar” over the past year but “this failure to disclose handily cleared that bar.”

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at Economic Policy Institute, said she believes  EPI’s analysis is pretty close to whatever the department of labor came up with in its shelved analysis.

“The basic economic logic is that it is really unlikely that back-of-the house workers would get any more pay if this rule were to be finalized … If employers do share those tips with them, it is likely it will be offset by a reduction in base pay. I don’t think take-home pay would be affected by this rule at all,” Shierholz said.

Shierholz added, “It is likely that the DOL found something in this ballpark too and it’s not surprising that there is just no way to do a good faith estimate and also maintain the fiction that this rule is not terrible for workers, so in that light you can see why it is no wonder that they tried to bury it.”

When asked whether any group planned to sue the department over its decision not to show the analysis to the public, Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said her organization sent a request to the department asking that it withdraw the rule but that she has not heard back from the department.

“We haven’t decided what further action we may take,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) released a statement demanding that the department drop the effort to propose this rule:

“This botched cover-up of evidence proving President Trump’s policies help businesses steal billions from workers shows exactly what President Trump truly cares about: helping those at the top squeeze every last penny from families trying as hard as they can to get ahead. Now that their real priorities have been exposed, President Trump should tell Secretary Acosta to abandon this effort immediately.”

This story was updated with additional quotes from economists, labor advocates, and politicians.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 1, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.
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