Posts Tagged ‘Department of Labor’
Monday, January 28th, 2013
If you asked me about the most significant issue in workplace fairness today, I wouldn’t cite any of the common answers. Although there are widespread issues such as corporate bullying, the wage gap between men and women, and a general lack of freedom among employees, there is one problem that is more widespread and more egregious than anything else. There is no aspect of the modern American workforce which is as unfair as the unpaid internship.
The Ethics of Payment
Work for pay is part of the social contract of modern life in a capitalist society. We all adhere to the same agreement: if you offer people a chance to contribute in a way that is valuable and if you define requirements around that work, they deserve to receive fair compensation for their efforts.
Our organizations really are that simple: if there’s defined work to be done, you get paid for that work. If you’re not receiving some kind of payment—such as volunteering—then there is no expectation that you will work at a particular time or place, or that the work will be completed according to certain parameters. Work equals wages. That’s the only way to make things fair.
The Apprenticeship and the Internship
Compensation doesn’t always mean cash. Sometimes, we pay people in-kind. We feed them. We provide housing stipends. We offer them credit or teach them something of value. In Europe, these programs are called apprenticeships. Individuals spend years working with a master craftsman to learn the trade. They often sign agreements to work for the employer full-time after their training is complete. And overseas, apprentices are paid for their efforts.
But the internship has become something different. For many, this is not a job training program. Instead of working on actual projects of value to the company, interns fetch lunches and clean closets. They make coffee and photocopy documents. They perform concierge work such as picking up dry-cleaning or delivering packages. Many interns aren’t doing much work related to the business. These internships are not apprenticeships.
Furthermore, perhaps one-half of all internships are unpaid. That means all of that grunt work is done simply for the chance to be near the people in the industry.
Requiring individuals to perform work—but refusing to pay them for their work—is wrong.
Unpaid Internships: Often Illegal
In the United States, unpaid internships are often (if not usually) illegal. The Department of Labor defines six criteria for interns that do not receive cash compensation:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
It’s extremely difficult to design an internship experience that meets all six of these requirements. Consider the first item. Most workplaces are nothing like schools. Do interns attend classroom-style instructional sessions? Do they have assignments which are graded? Do they receive individualized feedback? Do they study academic curriculum and report on their newfound knowledge and perspective?
Furthermore, the fourth point is nearly impossible to meet. For an internship to comply with this statement, the intern cannot conduct effort that the employer can consider valuable. That means an intern cannot produce a work product that will be purchased by a customer. They cannot write articles for the company newsletter or the blog. They are prohibited from substantial contributions in sales presentations or marketing efforts.
Ultimately: any work that an unpaid intern completes must be graded and then discarded. If you put an intern’s efforts to use in promoting your company, creating your products, or delivering your services—then that intern must be paid.
Hampering the Economy
The unpaid intern is not only an issue of workplace fairness, but also has a tremendous impact on our economy. When people perform work for free, they limit the growth of business by devaluing productivity. The more interns complete unpaid work—and the more that employers recruit unpaid interns—the less true economic activity is possible.
In simple terms: if people are working for free, why invest money in paying for work?
Therefore, the right thing to do for the country as well as for the people in your lives is to pay your interns. And if you can’t afford to pay them, that probably means you don’t have the resources to treat them like students and invest in their education.
Do the right thing. Pay your interns. Or, send them somewhere that they can earn a living wage.
About the Author: Robby Slaughter is with a business consulting firm based in the Midwest. He is the author of several books and hundreds of published articles.
Monday, March 14th, 2011
Advocates estimate that tens of billions dollars are stolen from workers every year through wage theft. A national survey of workers in the United States’ three largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – showed the startling finding that 26 percent of those surveyed in low-wage industries were paid less than the minimum wage in the last year and 75 percent were not paid overtime. The survey showed that 15 percent of the earnings of low-wage workers were stolen each year.
Part of the problem is that often workers don’t have the ability to prove that their wages were stolen. Pay stubs do not have uniform standards that clearly indicate overtime, wage per hour, exact days, and hours worked. Ten states do not even require employers to provide pay stubs for workers. The uneven standards and lack of uniformity and clarity in standards makes it very difficult for workers to prove that wages are stolen.
It would cost employers almost nothing to provide workers with such information. Already, employers are required to keep this information and give it to the IRS, state tax authorities, and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), just not to the workers. So it’s not as if companies do not already collect this information—they simply don’t want to give it to workers. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a statement indicating it intended to make a rule making greater standards and transparency. The Department announced that
Wage and Hour Division [of the Department] intends to publish a proposed rule updating the recordkeeping regulation issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to assist employers in planning to protect workers’ entitlement to wages that they have earned and bring greater transparency and openness to the workplace.
The proposed rule would address notification of workers’ status as employees or some other status such as independent contractors, and whether that worker is entitled to the protections of the FLSA. The proposed rulemaking would also explore requiring employers to provide a wage statement each pay period to their employees.
But anti-wage theft activists are saying the rule is not taking effect quickly enough.
“We are encouraged that the DOL is proposing a regulation that would mandate pay stubs. But the devil is in the details,” says Ted Smukler, policy director at Interfaith Worker’s Justice Center, which has helped make the country’s wage theft crisis visible nationally. “The regulatory language has not been released, even while this has been on the DOL’s agenda since the fall of 2009. Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers are ripped off every week. Whether it’s through regulatory reform or passing national legislation mandating that businesses provide workers detailed pay records, something must be done.”
It goes without saying that struggling American workers need every dollar they earn in order to survive. But as the U.S. economy sputters back to life after the worst recession in 70 years, it’s worth pointing out that eliminating wage theft would not only be the just thing to do—it could prove an economic stimulus.
This blog originally appeared in www.inthesetimes.com on March 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Alternet, The Atlantic and The American Prospect. Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for Harper’s Magazine, the American Prospect and In These Times.
Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
The new year started with better but not great news on the jobs front. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor released this morning show that unemployment dropped from 9.8 percent in November to 9.4 percent in December.
Even with the expected holiday season hires, only 103,000 net new jobs were created last month. Economists had predicted 150,000 to 175,000 new jobs for December. The number of jobs created is a drop from November, when 151,000 jobs were added.
The jobless rate has been at 9 percent or more for the past 20 months—the longest it has been this high since World War II, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist Heidi Shierholz says the drop in the unemployment rate is somewhat misleading.
Around half of the improvement was due to 260,000 people dropping out of the labor force, leaving the labor force participation rate at 64.3 percent, a stunning new low for the recession. Incredibly, the U.S. labor force is now smaller than it was before the recession started, though it should have grown by over 4 million workers to keep up with working-age population growth over this period.
According to the report, 14.5 million are officially jobless, down by 556,000 from last month. Long-term joblessness did not change from last month, with 6.5 million workers jobless for six months or more. That represents 44.3 percent of all unemployed workers.
The economy needs to add about 150,000 new jobs each month to keep up with the growth in the labor force. But to lower the nation’s unemployment rate to 6 percent by 2013 and make up for the more than 8 million jobs lost due to the Bush recession, the economy needs to add 350,000 jobs a month.
The nation is in dire need of a battle plan to create jobs and revive the economy. But instead of tackling job creation out of the gate, the new Republican majority in the House is playing cheap partisan politics by devoting its first week of action to repealing health care reform.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says that while the drop in December’s unemployment rate is welcome news, “net job growth is still not enough to accommodate our growing population, let alone close the 11-million job gap left by the Bush recession.”
The cuts being proposed by Republicans in Washington and around the country, including undermining Social Security and Medicare and cutting transportation spending, are the wrong remedies at the wrong time and threaten our economic future. We need dramatic action to invest in America and give states and cities breathing room to prevent further layoffs and create jobs.
Manufacturing gained 10,000 jobs in December, contributing to a gain of more than 100,000 jobs since December 2009. Construction jobs fell by 13,000, while retail jobs increased slightly by 12,000. But that follows November’s loss of 28,000 retail jobs. State and local public employee jobs fell by 20,000 last month.
The health care and leisure/hospitality sectors continue to be the strongest areas of job growth, with leisure/hospitality jobs increasing by 47,000 and health care employment expanding by 36,000 in December.
Earlier this week, Michael Snyder took a dispiriting look at how working families have been battered in recent years, especially with vanishing middle-class jobs and blue-collar jobs that pay decent wages. These jobs vanished in large part because of Bush-era trade and economic policies that encouraged U.S. firms to export jobs and gave Wall Street and Big Banks free rein to recklessly ride the economy off a cliff. Snyder writes:
More than half of the U.S. labor force (55 percent) has “suffered a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours or have become involuntary part-time workers” since the recession began in December 2007.
Since the year 2000, we have lost 10 percent of our middle-class jobs. In the year 2000, there were about 72 million middle-class jobs in the United States but today there are only about 65 million middle-class jobs. Meanwhile, our population is getting larger.
One out of every six Americans is now enrolled in at least one anti-poverty program run by the federal government.
Income inequality continued to grow with the richest 20 percent of working families taking home 47 percent of all income and earning 10 times that of low-income working families.
This article was originally published on AFL-CIO Now Blog.
About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Friday, January 7th, 2011
It is still very grim out there for those people who want decent paying work. Not just a job–but a job that pays a fair wage. Today’s numbers make even more clear–we need a Job Party.
I’ll talk about the Job Party a bit more. But, first, let’s look at the numbers:
While the overall picture showed improving job growth, the additions in the private sector in December were not enough to significantly reduce the ranks of the unemployed or keep pace with people entering the work force. The outlook remains bleak for many workers. More than 14.5 million people were out of work in December.
The Department of Labor says the “official unemployment rate” is now at 9.4 percent. Even The Wall Street Journal points out:
The U.S. unemployment rate has now been above 9% since May 2009, or 20 months. That is the longest stretch at such an elevated level since the Second World War. In the recession of the early 1980s, the jobless rate crept to 9% in March 1982 and remained above that mark until September 1983.[emphasis added]
But, the depth of the crisis is better seen here by looking at the U-6 level, which measures “Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force”.
That number is at 16.7 percent.
And that doesn’t even reflect how bad things are. I have pointed out that the minimum wage–which millions of people work for–is a poverty-level wage and a national scandal that covers up the depth of the economic crisis. It should be more than $19 an hour if we took in account the productivity rises over the last 30 years–that is, how hard people have worked compared to the rise in wages.
So, it isn’t just the number of jobs but the QUALITY OF JOBS.
I’m guessing that at least one in five Americans–20 percent–in the U-6 and minimum wage categories does not have decent full-time paying work. And I think the crisis is far bigger if you really look at what it takes to get by in today’s world of higher prices.
Which brings me to the Job Party. Several of us concluded recently that we needed a movement that is focused entirely on the job crisis:
The Job Party is a nationwide grassroots movement to demand an Emergency Jobs Bill for 15 million jobs so every unemployed American can go to work, feed their families, and put a roof over their head.
In December, Congress passed a $900 billion tax bill for 2 years that will produce only 1 million jobs through “trickle-down” economics for the rich. For that same $900 billion, Congress could create 15 million jobs paying $30,000 per year for 2 years!
Not only is that morally right, but it’s economically right too – because those 15 million paid workers would massively increase consumer spending, fuel growth for the whole economy, and greatly reduce the national debt.
It’s a revolutionary change from the failed “trickle-down” policies of the past 30 years that created the Great Recession that’s killing us. We call it “gusher-up” and we demand the politicians in Washington DC embrace it before we all starve and the nation goes broke.
And if this current Congress doesn’t act, we’ll elect a new Congress in 2012 that will.
Move over, Tea Party – the Job Party has arrived. Join us today!
We would like to have people help build this. This is the economic crisis of our times. We can’t wait for the current political system to act.
We are gathering together the best ideas for creating jobs–and we want your ideas. Please contribute YOUR IDEAS.
We are collecting YOUR storiesabout your experience trying to get a decent job.
We are gathering the people who will take to the streets to demand that we start creating real jobs in this country. Sign up!.
This article was originally posted on Working Life.
About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.
Thursday, October 14th, 2010
Most people are aware that, since 1970, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been responsible for issuing and enforcing standards for workplace health and safety. But if I were a betting person, I would wager that far fewer are aware of OSHA’s responsibilities in relation to the Sarbanes Oxley Act. OSHA is charged with protecting workers ” …from retaliation for reporting alleged violations of mail, wire, bank, or securities fraud; violations of rules or regulations of the SEC; or federal laws relating to fraud against shareholders.”
This responsibility is part of the Office of Whistleblower Protection Program (OWPP),for which OSHA has oversight. OWPP was originally intended to protect workers from being retaliated against for such things as reporting safety violations to OSHA, requesting or participating in an OSHA inspection, or testifying in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection.
Over the years, this responsibility has expanded to encompass oversight of the whistle-blowing provisions for eighteen other statutes, including violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, health care reform, nuclear energy, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad and securities laws.
And according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), OSHA gets failing grades for discharging its whistleblower protection responsibilities. The GAO cited lack of training, chronic inattention from OSHA leaders, and long delays in resolving cases, among other problems.
Some say the problems are no surprise: too few staff spread too thin, resulting in long case delays and staff demoralization. You can see charts depicting the growth of responsibilities while staff remained flat on pages 16-17 of the GAO Whistleblower Report. (PDF)
Some relief is in the offing – 25 new investigators are scheduled for appointment to OWPP. In addition, the Department of Labor (DOL) is conducting a “top to bottom” review and there is some discussion about whether the program should be moved to another part of DOL.
Whistleblowers are fundamental to workplace safety, but even with protections built into the laws, the reality is that protection for whistle-blowing employees can be a long time in coming, when and if it does. Read about truck driver John Simon’s whistle-blowing ordeal as a case in point. There are unfortunately many other similar stories. OSHA offers employees a a bill of rights to ensure safety, but fundamental to those rights are protections when and if they speak up in the cause of safety.
This article was originally posted on Workers Comp Insider.
About the Author: Julie Ferguson is an insurance industry consultant with more than 20 years experience developing and implementing communications programs for workers compensation, workplace health & safety, employee communications, and general insurance programs. She founded and serves as editor for the nation’s first insurance weblog, Lynch Ryan’s Workers Comp Insider. She also founded and manages HR Web Café, a weblog for ESI Employee Assistance Group; Consumer Insurance Blog for the Renaissance Insurance Group; and is one of the administrators of Health Wonk Review, a bi-weekly health policy carnival. If you have a question for Julie, you can reach her at email@example.com.
Thursday, September 30th, 2010
The United States is a country where hard work is supposed to be rewarded. If you agree with that, would you be shocked to learn that there are more than 1.6 million homecare workers who are being denied federal minimum wage and overtime protections under current labor laws? And it is almost 2011!
Chew on this for a minute: More than 1 million hardworking Americans are legally denied basic labor rights most of us take for granted at this point. How did that happen, what can we do to change that?
It all goes back to The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was enacted in 1938 to ensure a minimum standard of living for workers through the provision of minimum wage, overtime pay, and other protections – yet, domestic workers were excluded.
In 1974 the FLSA was amended to include domestic workers, such as housekeepers, full-time nannies, chauffeurs, and cleaners. However, people who were described as “companions to the elderly or infirm” were for some reason excluded from the law. They were compared to babysitters…
I love asking the question: If your elderly family member needed homecare to change herself, use the bathroom, get lifted from the chair to the sofa, and then have her meds dispensed at specific times; would you call the babysitter you call for date night with your spouse? Of course you wouldn’t, so why does the government consider these hardworking homecare providers babysitters? Yeah, I don’t know either.
In 2001 the Clinton Department of Labor finds that “significant changes in the home care industry” have occurred and issued a “notice of proposed rulemaking” that would have made important changes to this bizarre exemption. So, that was good news, right?
It was good news until W came to town. The Bush Administration terminated the revision process shortly after taking office. Thanks, W!
Then comes 2007: the US Supreme Court, in a case brought by New York home care attendant Evelyn Coke, upheld the DOL’s authority to define this exception to the FLSA. In short, that means that this crazy archaic law can be reversed beginning with the DOL, today.
Before we get you to take action on this situation, please keep in mind that these million-plus workers are currently living at near poverty level earning a median income of $17,000 a year. Most of these workers, who both love their work and are good at their work, must have two and three jobs to just make ends meet. With this scenario in play, these workers are quick to burn out or leave their trade entirely. This ultimately comes back to the consumer who often finds it difficult to hire and retain high quality home care services.
This article was originally posted on SEIU”s Blog.
About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
Someone sent me an email earlier entitled, “U.S. Senate Declares National Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week.”
The big week of recognition is slotted to begin September 12th.
In the announcement for “Recognition Week,” Senator Ben Nelson says, “Direct support professionals provide an invaluable service to the millions of Americans living with disabilities. I’m proud to honor these hard-working individuals who give so much to help those in need. Their dedication to service is an example to us all.”
So, bravo to the Senate for marking a week in September to honor these workers, but honor and a week of applause doesn’t pay the bills. Surely, they must know this.
While the Senate “recognizes” these workers, more than 1.5 million home care workers are currently living at near-poverty level earning a median income of $17,000 a year. Most of these workers, who both love their work and are good at their work, must have two and three jobs to just make ends meet. Many of these workers need food stamps to put food on their tables. All this ultimately hurts the consumer, who often finds it difficult to find and retain high quality home care services.
Home care workers–the folks who provide essential care and services to more than 13 million seniors and people with disabilities every day–are legally excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime protections.
While we should definitely celebrate these workers’ contribution to society, we should also recognize their needs as working people. Perhaps we should help them get out from near poverty levels and give them the right to have a day off from time to time to take care of their own families? Why shouldn’t they be paid overtime when they work 70 and 80 hours a week with sleepovers as part of the gig?
I’ve mentioned this before in other entries but it is worth repeating: the U.S. Department of Labor has the authority to make this long overdue regulatory change and do the right thing for home care workers and the individuals and families who depend on their services. In other words, they have the authority to turn this around so that home care workers can enjoy the same benefits many take for granted.
What we need to do to bring this change about is let people know that this issue even exists, and second, we need take some very basic actions online.
On Facebook, become a fan of the Department of Labor’s Facebook page and post this message:
Secretary Solis, home care workers deserve minimum wage and overtime protection. It’s time to change the companionship exemption regulations: http://bit.ly/a5pF1e
On Twitter, copy, paste, and tweet this message:
@HildaSolisDOL, it’s time to end the exclusion of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime exemption: http://bit.ly/a5pF1e
On Facebook, you should also become a fan of this campaign’s page:
Homecare Workers Deserve Minimum Wage Protection.
Here’s some legal background on how home care workers came to be legally excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime protections:
* 1938 – The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is enacted to ensure a minimum standard of living for workers through the provision of a minimum wage, overtime pay, and other protections — but domestic workers are excluded.
• 1974 – The FLSA is amended to include domestic employees such as housekeepers, full-time nannies, chauffeurs, and cleaners. However, persons employed as “companions to the elderly or infirm” remain excluded from the law.
• 1975 – The Department of Labor (DOL) interprets the “companionship exemption” as including almost all home care workers , even those employed by third parties such as home care agencies.
• 2001 – The Clinton DOL finds that “significant changes in the home care industry” have occurred and issues a “notice of proposed rulemaking” that would have made important changes to the exemption. The revision process is terminated, however, by the incoming Bush Administration.
• 2007 – The US Supreme Court, in a case brought by New York home care attendant Evelyn Coke, upholds the DOL’s authority to define exceptions to FLSA.
Today: We are calling on DOL Secretary Hilda Solis to ensure that home care workers receive basic labor protections.
Together we can create the same labor protections for home care workers that virtually ever other worker in the economy enjoys.
About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Friday, August 20th, 2010
For the last few months I’ve been thinking about and writing about home care workers. In my work, I find that if folks haven’t had to hire a homecare worker for themselves or their family, it appears that most of these workers fall off the radar.
The problem here is somewhat circular. The demand for homecare services is exploding as the baby boomer generation ages and more seniors and people with disabilities choose to live at home rather than in a nursing home. Low wages, no federal minimum wage or overtime protections, and no benefits contribute to homecare workers leaving their profession (turnover is estimated to be as high as 60% per year). Consumers and patients have difficulty finding and keeping homecare services as a result. Which leads to – yes – increasing demand for homecare workers.
How did this happen?
Well, it goes all the way back to 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted to ensure a minimum standard of living for workers through the provision of minimum wage, overtime pay, and other protections – but domestic workers, for some reason, were excluded.
Then 36 years later, in 1974, the FLSA was amended to include domestic employees, such as housekeepers, full-time nannies, chauffeurs, and cleaners. However, people who were described as “companions to the elderly or infirm” were for some reason excluded from the law. They were compared to “babysitters.” Weird, huh?
The following year, in 1975, the Department of Labor (DOL) goes on to interpret this “companionship exemption” as including all direct-care workers in the home, even homecare workers employed by third parties, such as home care agencies.
So, in 2001, the Clinton DOL finds that “significant changes in the home care industry” have occurred and issues a “notice of proposed rulemaking” that would have made important changes to this weird exemption. They agreed that it made no sense to exclude this whole industry, as if they were just like “babysitters.”
Clinton’s findings were unfortunately short-lived because the incoming Bush Administration terminated the revision process. Thank you, Mr. Bush.
In 2007 something else happened worth noting: The US Supreme Court, in a case brought by New York home care attendant Evelyn Coke, upheld the DOL’s authority to define this exception to the FLSA. This means, this crazy archaic law can easily be reversed by the DOL.
Meanwhile more than 1.5 million homecare workers are currently living at near poverty level earning a median income of $17,000 a year. Most of these workers, who both love their work and are good at their work, must have two and three jobs to just make ends meet. Many of these workers need food stamps to put food on their tables. All this ultimately comes back to the consumer who often finds it difficult to find and retain high quality homecare services.
The injustice here is, as was said in a June 6 NY Times Op-Ed, ” …while nannies and caregivers make it possible for professional couples to balance the demands of family and work, they often cannot take time to be with their own families when sickness or injury strikes.”
Though I inherently know that we can fix this problem together, I am keen to know what you think is the best way to make this happen.
This article originally appeared on the SEIU Blog.
About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Thursday, June 10th, 2010
Department of Labor news releases rarely get the attention they so rightly deserve. But I’m a fan of giving credit where credit is due, so when Assistant Secretary Joseph Main issued this statement, I perked up.
After an investigation by Federal officials, a mine operated by Massey (think Upper Big Branch explosion) was cited for 29 violations in its Tiller No. 1 Mine. The violations ranged from hazardous roof conditions to inadequate ventilation to, wait for it….
Non-permissible electrical equipment with the potential to explode methane gas.
Section 104(d)(1) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act describes a significant and substantial violation as being “of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard.” A violation of this provision essentially means there is a reasonable likelihood that the hazard will result in serious injury or illness. The problem is not just the standard, but in the requisite number of violations that meet the standard to establish a pattern.
Judge David Barbour, who issued an oral ruling (written decision to come) on the matter, found that although he believed all 29 violations had occurred, only 19 of the violations amounted to significant and substantial, 6 less than the 25 needed to establish a pattern. Don’t bother asking if that’s a typo, 25 “significant and substantial” violations are necessary in order to establish a pattern. Establishing a pattern means that any significant and substantial violation found within 90 days thereafter automatically triggers a withdrawal order until the mine has a clean inspection with no S&S violations. In short, establishing a pattern would immensely help those who work in such unsafe conditions by forcing mine operators to clean up or face losing money every day.
“No mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status.” This is perhaps the most profound statement made with regards to the matter. In 2006, the American public endured the Sago Mine explosion and watched as a single miner emerged with his life. And in April of this year the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners.
Mining is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we continually disrespect those who risk their lives for our energy by refusing to recognize and fix a broken system of oversight. Employees of these mines should be disgusted, if they aren’t too busy being frightened. The Federal Mine and Health Safety Act is designed to provide regulations and oversight into one of the most hazardous industries known to man. It was not designed to protect the companies who owned the mines, but the average worker who spent a full 8-10 hours in a black hole.
A message needs to be sent to the mine industry: we will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for workers. We may not be able to bring mining from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world to the safest job in the world, but surely we can help those facing such conditions. And we can do that by easing the restrictions on establishing patterns of violations. Doing so would allow regulators to shut mines down when they see violations deemed S&S, and force mine operators to think about safety more than once every explosion.
About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.
Thursday, April 1st, 2010
A little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.
With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)
As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:
During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.
For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast, says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”
The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.
Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.
At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”
Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.
Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.
Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.
OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement. It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.
During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.
The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.
At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.
We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.
Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.
Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.
The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.
It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.
So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.
*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.