Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2018

Worker wages remain stagnant as wealthy executives are rolling in cash

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Congressional Republicans and President Trump continue to push their sole legislative accomplishment, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, as a game-changer for average working Americans — but the benefits of that bill appear to be going mostly to the people at the top.

Rather than delivering an “economic turnaround of historic proportions,” as Trump boasted last week, the bill will likely end up costing well over $1.4 trillion dollars and will instead provide corporations and the wealthiest Americans a giant hand-out.

A recent Politico review of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings also revealed corporate executives, who often receive most of their compensation in stock, have been profiting enormously off the bill, which slashes the corporate tax rate to 21 percent.

Following the bill’s passage in December last year, Oracle Corp. CEO Safra Catz sold $250 million worth of shares in her company, the “largest executive payday this year,” according to Politico. The company’s president of Product Development,  Thomas Kurian, also sold $85 million worth of shares, directly after the company announced a $12 billion share repurchase.

Oracle isn’t the only company whose top brass have benefited from the tax bill: in May, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga sold $44.4 million of stock. Only a few months earlier, the company had announced it would buy back $4 billion in shares. According to Reuters, Mastercard also announced that month it had “increased its quarterly cash dividend to 25 cents per share, a 14 percent increase over the previous dividend of 22 cents a share.”

Similarly, after Eastman Chemical announced in February it would purchase $2 billion of its own stock, its CEO, Mark Costa, sold 55,000 shares, raking in at least $5.4 million in the process.

Data from Americans For Tax Fairness found that powerful Fortune 500 companies have spent a total of over $238,244,348,330 in stock buybacks since December. The numbers showed few corporations have actually used their respective tax windfalls to benefit workers directly, as many pledged they would do.

Out of the over 1,500 companies from which Americans for Tax Fairness collected data, only 359 of them actually promised to increase wages for their employees. Of those that promised to bump wages, the majority only offered an increase up to $15 an hour in entry-level pay — which, by all accounts, should already be what companies pay entry-level employees in a tightening labor market.

Despite what Republicans in Washington have suggested, stock buybacks do absolutely nothing to help struggling middle America. Instead, they traditionally enrich both the company buying back shares and those who own corporate stock, which typically means the already-rich. The wealthiest 10 percent of American households own 84 percent of all shares, while the top 1 percent own 40 percent. Roughly one-half of American households don’t own stock at all.

The AFL-CIO’s annual Executive PayWatch database, released in May, also revealed just how stark income inequality is among CEOs and their workers. On average, data showed, CEOs are paid 333 times more than an average employee at their company.

The disparity between CEO and worker pay is consistent with income inequality on a wider scale. While average worker wages have been stagnant for decades, the top 1 percent of U.S. income earners have “more than doubled their share of the nation’s income” since the 1970s, the Institute for Policy Studies observed.

The Trump administration continues to tout the nation’s record low unemployment rate as a sign that the country’s economy is thriving. But as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich detailed in a recent op-ed for The Guardian, 80 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

“The typical American worker now earns around $44,500 a year, not much more than what the typical worker earned in 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation,” Reich wrote. “When Republicans delivered their $1.5 trillion tax cut last December they predicted a big wage boost for American workers. Forget it. Wages actually dropped in the second quarter of this year.”

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.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 30, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

What activities are protected from whistleblower retaliation?

Monday, July 30th, 2018

Federal employees have strong — but not unlimited — whistleblower protections. There is too much at stake if you have built a career working for the U.S. government. Before you report wrongdoing or exercise employment rights, you of course want to be sure you won’t jeopardize your job, your benefits and your career.

Namely, it is important to know which activities are specifically protected from retaliation. Some protections are universal for all federal employees, and other whistleblower rules are agency-specific.

Protected whistleblower activities under federal employment law

The follows actions and activities are protected from termination and other forms of whistleblower retaliation:

  • Reporting to your employer a criminal act, law violation, fraud, waste or mismanagement of government funds, abuse of authority, substantial and specific danger to public safety, or threats to the integrity of scientific research such as censorship or manipulation of data
  • Refusing to engage in an unlawful practice, if you have informed your employer that you believe it violates the law
  • Cooperating with internal investigations, including testifying, assisting the investigation or preparing to do so.
  • Testifying before Congress, the EEOC or any federal or state proceeding (or preparing to)

Up to one-third of whistleblowers experience some retaliation

This is a simplified and not exhaustive list of protected activities under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. An attorney who specializes in federal employment law can advise on the procedures and protections specific to your agency and your circumstances.

Under the WPEA, you are protected if you report wrongdoing to a supervisor or coworker who participated in the unlawful activity. You are also protected if others have previously reported the same or similar wrongdoing.

You are not protected from adverse employment actions that are unrelated to your disclosures. But all too often, demotions, revocation of security clearance or other adverse actions are veiled and trumped-up retaliation for bringing scrutiny to unlawful activity. And that is exactly what the federal whistleblower laws are designed for.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

On the Disturbing Return of Black Lung

Friday, July 27th, 2018

The push to revive America’s coal industry has generated alarm because it is almost certain to worsen the climate crisis. But the industry also brings an immediate human cost: black lung disease. Black lung is an often fatal condition contracted by miners who breathe in coal and silica dust on the job. Rates of the disease dropped towards the end of the 20th century, thanks in part to federally mandated reductions in the amount of coal dust miners were allowed to breathe in. Now, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have documented a troubling new trend: Black lung disease cases, particularly among younger miners, have risen sharply since the mid-1990s.

One chart from the group, published by the New York Times earlier in 2018, shows that in 1995 there were “3.7 cases per 1,000 miners.” By 2015, that number had jumped to over 50 cases per 1,000 miners.

Overall, there has been a steady upsurge in the number of cases of black lung, including in its most aggressive forms. A 2018 National Public Radio report identified many reasons for the increase, including the fact that many miners are working longer hours with less time to rest and recover between shifts. Advances in mining technology have also led to the use of more powerful extraction machines that throw more toxic coal dust into the air and into the lungs of coal miners. These factors have made the coal mining regions of Appalachia the “epicenter of one of the worst industrial health disasters in U.S. history,” according to a recent article by Kentucky lawyer, Evan Smith.

Smith advocates on behalf of coal miners through his work at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. Writing for the West Virginia Law Review, Smith calls the uptick in black lung cases evidence of a “gut-wrenching reversal of 20th century progress.” Black lung disease is preventable, Smith insists, and should have gone the way of smallpox long ago. (Black lung is actually not a medical term, Smith points out, and notes that it is just one name for a host of debilitating physical conditions experienced by miners.) Although mining has always been a dangerous occupation, rates of black lung disease did drop from the 1970’s until the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to improved workplace and environmental regulations.

Dangerous working conditions

Looking beyond black lung, recent incidents such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia have shown that working conditions for coal miners often remain harrowingly unsafe. Portions of the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 workers. In the aftermath, autopsies were carried out on a majority of the lungs of those killed, revealing that 71 percent of them had black lung disease, including a worker who was just 25 years old when he died. Upper Big Branch was owned then by Massey Energy, whose CEO, Don Blankenship, was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in making the mine an unsafe place to work.

One of the things that made the Upper Big Branch mine so unsafe was the fact that Blankenship had driven out the miners’ union. Blankenship, who is a current  U.S. Senate candidate in West Virginia as a member of the Constitution Party, “made it his personal campaign to break the union at the mine,” according to a 2010 report by Public Radio International. This resulted in workers having to take on 12-hour shifts as one of Massey Energy’s reported cost-cutting measures. What followed was a number of articles arguing, as reporters Taylor Kuykendall and Hira Fawad did in 2015, that union-staffed mines are more productive and less dangerous for workers. One key piece of Farwad and Kuykendall’s evidence for this comes from safety records in 2014, when just one out of 16 work-related mining deaths occurred at a union site.

Despite Kentucky’s history of worker militancy, today there are zero union mines left in the state, which is at the heart of Appalachian coal country. Still, a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth continues to advocate on behalf of the thousands of coal miners who work in the state. Acknowledging the rise in black lung disease among miners, the group aims to move away from relying on toxic, fossil fuel industry jobs such as coal mining.

A dying industry

A 30-year-old organization, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was born out of a late 1970s movement that documented who was benefiting most from Kentucky’s coal-rich land. (Hint: it wasn’t local communities.) The group organizes workers and residents around its vision of a more inclusive, democratic society and cites direct action as one of its key strategies. Right now, a prominent feature of the group’s work is called Appalachian Transition, which is built around the recognition that, despite Trump’s campaign rallies, coal mining is a dying industry. The goal, according to the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth website, is to “support coal communities and workers as we shift away from a fossil fuel economy to one that is more sustainable and equitable.”

The group criticizes the instability and inequity of the coal industry, which often results in large, non-union corporations cutting a destructive path through Kentucky’s rural communities. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth shares stories of people who have reclaimed the land in the Kentucky mountains, in order to reinvest in the environment and learn 21st century skills such as restorative agricultural practices and sustainable forestry—something that has been done in other coal-producing regions in Germany. The ultimate goal is the creation of a base of grassroots power among Kentuckians, even as the state’s legislature continues to align itself with corporate interests.

For proof, one has to look no further than a recent case concerning black lung disease and workers’ rights. Just weeks ago, executives from the now-closed Armstrong Coal company in Owensboro, Kentucky were charged with “falsifying federally mandated coal dust tests designed to protect miners from incurable black lung disease,” as an editorial in the Lexington Courier Journal put it. The case against Armstrong Coal was prompted by two coal miners who went public with their story in 2014, detailing the destructive impact of black lung disease on their lives. Workers felt forced into going along with the company’s deceptive policies, according to news reports—a situation not unlike that in many mines, especially where union protection has been lost.

The Armstrong Coal case prompted another Kentucky newspaper’s editorial board to declare that “coal miners’ lives still matter,” yet it might be hard for those seeking medical help for black lung disease in Kentucky to believe this. In July, new state laws went into effect that not only make it harder for workers hurt on the job to qualify for workers compensation, but also “excludes the most qualified physicians from being heard in black lung claims.” When the laws were passed, Smith, of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, told National Public Radio that this move “keeps Kentucky coal miners from using highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims [and] looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections.”

So, when Donald Trump and his allies wax poetic about bringing “clean, beautiful coal” jobs back to places like Kentucky, it seems fair to ask a simple question: at what cost?

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Beware the Janus Fix That Relies Too Much on Bosses

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, a new approach to financing unions called “direct reimbursement” is gaining traction with Democratic politicians, academics, and even the New York Times editorial board.

It boils down to this: Rather than public sector workers paying dues, their government employer would pay an equivalent amount directly to the union.

Proponents claim this approach will neutralize the impact of the Janus decision and shore up union budgets.

The idea has legs. New York’s most senior Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried is sponsoring a bill to allow public sector unions to negotiate this scheme into their contracts. Hawaii is entertaining a version too.

Backed into a corner and fearful for the future, some unions might jump at this quick fix. It’s a big mistake.

Employer-sponsored unions?

There’s a good reason why such an arrangement would be illegal in the private sector. Federal labor law bars unions from receiving employers’ financial support.

The point of that bar is to keep unions independent and out of the control of the boss. Direct reimbursement would make unions more vulnerable to employer domination.

“It is like a company union,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor researcher at Cornell University. “What the employer gives out, it can take it away.” 

Aaron Tang, the law professor at the University of California-Davis who dreamed up the idea, has a simple remedy to preserve union independence—guarantee the reimbursements by law, and send any disputes to a third party such as a state labor board. 

But given the depth of employers’ hostility, the feeble enforcement of existing labor laws, the history of company unionism in the U.S. and the fact that state labor boards are often filled with political appointees (just look at the anti-union board stacked by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner), Tang’s proposal is naïve.

It would also leave unions unprepared to collect dues in the event of repeal by a court or legislature.

“Remove the workers”

A law like this would play right into the anti-union talking point that a union is an outside organization, imposed on workers from above. 

Tang’s proposal treats workers as the problem, not the solution. As he puts it, the policy would work by “removing the workers from the equation” of union funding. Seriously?

A “solution” to Janus that leaves out workers will only reinforce the bad behaviors that got us into this mess in the first place. Too many union leaders react to a weak position by looking for a technical fix or a way to partner up with the boss.

You can’t find a technical fix to an organizing problem.

“This idea is coming from the Democratic Party because they are concerned about union money,” said Bronfenbrenner, “not about workers or building worker power.”

“Many unions have lost the understanding that our fight starts in the workplace,” said Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME 3800 in Minneapolis, who supported a resolution at the union’s national convention opposing the direct reimbursement approach. “If our members know we are fighting for and with them, they’ll know that it is in their interests to be a part of their union.”

Let’s stop looking for shortcuts to surviving Janus, and get down to the hard work of organizing.

This article was originally republished from Labor Notes at In These Times on July 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.

This is why workplace harassment training is so ineffective

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

It’s a scenario that has become familiar to almost anyone who works in an office.

After “recent events around the country,” a well-meaning sexual harassment educator comes in to teach the letter of the law. The mandatory training provides information on “each and every sexual harassment law,” but the effects fall somewhere between useless and detrimental. The trainer comes at a large financial cost and proves to be of questionable value. Ultimately, the trainees leave discouraged and the hostile climate remains.

This all-too-familiar scene was demonstrated by the arrival of Petey the Sexual Harassment Panda on South Park, way back in 1999. His song-and-dance approach before a class of fourth graders was obviously a caricature. But sexual harassment experts say the problems he demonstrated — overly legalistic trainings that are more about liability protection than culture change and that come without proven results — have become ubiquitous, even as America reckons with the #MeToo moment. Trainers and training companies make a mint off of these trainings, more and more places are mandating them, and there is a built-in disincentive for trainers and employers to ever really explore whether they are helping to reduce harassment.

Fran Sepler, a consultant and trainer who has worked in sexual harassment prevention for more than 30 years, says that trainings that focus mostly on what the law says are not productive and may actually convey that “anything short of illegal behavior is tacitly acceptable.”

“Even though unlawful harassment is a terrible thing and a problem, your odds of being [illegally] harassed are relatively small, say 20 percent for women and less for men,” she explained. “Rude and uncivil behavior — close to 100 percent experience that at some point.” Yet the typical workplace harassment training video shows unrealistic situations that don’t match up with real life. “I show clips of about 50 videos,” Sepler said, “All show people putting their hands on the backs of colleagues.”

In the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court rulings had the effect of giving companies an incentive to do sexual harassment training: liability protection. Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director of legal programs for the non-profit Futures Without Violence said that this was a big factor in the growth of the industry. [Full disclosure: Futures Without Violence has previously provided its programming for ThinkProgress staff and other employees at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund].

“The reason they do sexual harassment training is not prevention,” Seabrook told ThinkProgress. “It’s so they can avail themselves of a certain defense: Faragher-Ellerth.” The term refers to a pair of judicial precedents (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth) that suggested employers who do trainings can be protected from liability for some sexual harassment that might occur among their employees.

Alas, she said, these trainings on what is prohibited do not solve the problem at all. “I don’t understand how people think that type of training will lead to prevention. It trains you on the law and the employer’s policy. It does not and cannot at all train or educate you on what fosters or facilitates this type of conduct and/or what type of workplace doesn’t allow for this type of conduct.”

A lucrative industry

In 1998, the Los Angeles Times predicted court rulings would soon spur employers to spend big to protect themselves from future liability by providing sexual harassment training to their employees. It cited a projection that “U.S. employers will spend $10 billion annually on employment-law-related training by 2000, up from $5 billion in 1995, with sexual harassment prevention one of the main topics.” Two decades later, one training company told the paper it had received 2,150 requests for its programs in January — over 8 times more than the previous January.

Seabrook said Futures Without Violence has seen a significant increase in the number of “workplace education” sessions it it has been asked to do since the start of the #MeToo movement. But to be successful, she noted, the focus really has to be on building a thriving workplace community: the “deep-seated gender norms,” the sexism, the misogyny, and the anti-LGBTQ sentiments in our society require more than “a one-hour training or a two-hour training once a year.”

Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is an expert on sexual harassment policy. She said there’s growth in the demand for harassment training: “People who do trainings are getting a significant uptick,” she said. And she believes trainings can be a good thing, “but it has to be good training.”

“Nobody funds research”

One of the biggest obstacles to culture change is ignorance — sometimes willful — about what the problems are and what actually helps to solve them. In the past, Frye said, “employers historically have been unwilling to do certain types of assessments because they feared it could be used [against them] in litigation.” And few employers’ harassment training providers have had the ability or volition to find out if their methods are working.

That’s why so few businesses have embraced an evidence-based approach to figuring out what actually works.

“The fact that there isn’t info is itself sort of the news,” said U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Commissioner (EEOC) Chai Feldblum, who co-chairs the commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. She co-authored a 2016 report for that task force, asking, essentially, why the problem remains so pervasive and what can be done about it.

In a telephone interview, she told ThinkProgress, “The fact that the evidence hasn’t shown that the type of training done for a decade [to be effective] doesn’t say training isn’t important. It just says training — in a vacuum — doesn’t seem to have much of an impact.” What limited research there is suggests that some things do help: leadership can change office culture, management can hold people accountable, the organization can set clear policies that go beyond the legalistic, and workplaces can have meaningful training. “We have a sense of what can work… [But] we don’t yet have solid evaluations of each of these things. Certainly not of them as a total package.”

As with all research, money is a factor. “Nobody funds research,” Futures Without Violence’s Seabrook observed. Social scientists “don’t have the resources to do that kind of work,” she said, noting that the EEOC has no research arm and is historically a low-priority department for administrations. Still, she explained, legislation will soon be introduced in Congress to fund research into all types of workplace harassment.

Feldblum agreed and noted another challenge: “We’ve always had two issues: one was get the funding, two was get the subject of the research (the employer) to say yes” to research into their workplace. Unless an employer is willing to let researchers examine the climate of a workplace before and after trainings and other interventions, there is no way to really know if they worked.

Legally, companies could be held liable for holding trainings they know are ineffective, creating a disincentive. But Frye says “it’s better to know your problems than to feign ignorance.”

According to Sepler, a lot of researchers would be “delighted” to do those kinds of examinations if they had the funding. “What if they evaluate a training model and and it shows it is ineffective?” she asked rhetorically. Despite the desire for evidence of results, “no one wants to be the organization where there is data [proving] you’ve been doing something demonstrably ineffective.”

Vicki Magley, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, is one of the few people who has studied which interventions actually succeed at reducing harassment. She observed that most of the assessment of training is done by the vendors themselves — and it is less-than-rigorous data. “I’ve talked to many, many training companies over the past few months who want to tell me all the wonderful things they’re doing with their training. They don’t sound terrible…” she said. “But when I ask, ‘how do you evaluate whether this is doing anything?’, they have no answer.”

“You can ask trainees at the end of a training how well they liked the training, with smiley faces. That doesn’t tell you anything about attitude change, culture change, perceived risk [for reporting harassment],” she said. Instead of a rigorous before/after assessment, participants are mostly asked if the experience was helpful and if the free cookies served were fresh. That sends the message to employees that the company doesn’t take such trainings seriously.

In her own research efforts, she has encountered strong resistance to that sort of before and after study. Recently, she recounted, one organization hired her to evaluate a training but refused to let her evaluate efficacy. “I was being asked to come in and evaluate a training. I was told I couldn’t really evaluate it in the way that was going to be useful because ‘it was going to end up costing too much money and that would just be too expensive.’” With her university bearing the brunt of the costs, she said, she knew “at the end of the day, they just didn’t want to know.”

Magley also noted that many companies use online trainings which are even less evidence-based and can easily be completed by employees with “half an eye and half a heart.”

“If there’s a dearth [of research] on sexual harassment training, there is almost zilch on online training,” she says. “We really don’t know if it does anything.”

A roadmap for employers

Still, state and local lawmakers continue to pass laws making harassment training mandatory, without really taking into account whether it helps. Often these laws require that medium and large employers provide lengthy explanations about the letter of the sexual harassment law. In turn, this increases the incentives for training companies to remain ignorant about whether their in-person or virtual trainings are useful.

Robin Shea, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete who tracks state harassment training laws, said in an email that New York State and New York City were the most recent major jurisdictions to enact mandatory training for all major employers. When they go into effect in the upcoming months, New York will join California, Connecticut, Maine, and possibly additional states. “I do expect mandatory harassment training laws to be a hot legislative topic this year and in 2019 because of the #MeToo movement,” she predicted. Earlier this year, Connecticut’s senate, in a bipartisan vote, moved to expand the required two-hour training to employers with at least 20 employees (instead of 50) — though that bill died in the state’s house due to controversy around some other provisions.

But how to actually improve the problem? Feldblum said the EEOC task force report — a series of non-binding recommendations — is a “road map for employers to take.” It recommends an array of steps including greater accountability, new and different approaches to training, and more effective reporting systems.

Among the ideas in the report is a proposal that when employers accused of harassment enter into settlement agreements with the commission, they include requirements that researchers be allowed to work with the employer to assess climate and harassment levels before and after implementations of compliance trainings, civility trainings, and bystander intervention trainings.

So far, she has not seen a huge number of takers. “Even if we find an employer who is willing, we still have to fund it,” she said.

The University of Connecticut’s Magley thinks ultimately the solution may have to come from the judiciary. “Courts need to say, ‘You can do training, that’s a fine thing to do, but if you do that, you need to document that it is effective, that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.’” By requiring that for legal liability protections, organizations would be “held accountable to truly effectively change structures,” rather than “do whatever they can, as cheaply as possible, to check the box.”

With the Trump administration working to pack the federal courts with Clarence Thomases and Sam Alitos who side with businesses over workers in case after case, that shift may not be quick.

“Legal change is a slow-moving train,” she acknowledged, but “hope rests on the shoulders of current law students actively reading this literature and law professors who are training that that type of thinking can start to permeate and change the culture.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Josh Israel has been senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012. Previously, he was a reporter and oversaw money-in-politics reporting at the Center for Public Integrity, was chief researcher for Nick Kotz’s acclaimed 2005 book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, and was president of the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club. A New England native, Josh received a B.A. in politics from Brandeis University and graduated from the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, in 2004. He has appeared on cable news and many radio shows across the country.

OSHA Speaks to Employers, Ignores Workers, About Deaths in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Too many workers are dying in the states of Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, according to OSHA Region VII, and employers need to do something about it. An OSHA alert has gone out from the region, “seeking to stem a recent increase in workplace fatalities in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.” The press release cites “an increase in fatalities associated with fallsstruck-by objects and vehiclesmachine hazardsgrain bin engulfment, and burns” and notes that “OSHA has  investigated 34 fatalities in these three states since Oct. 1, 2017.”

Some of the more recent fatalities in these states gleaned from the Confined Space Weekly Tollinclude 39-year-old Rafael Ayala Orozco, of Grand Island, Nebraska, who fell about 80 feet to his death at a fertilizer plant construction site near Hastings and an un-named worker who died at a Michael Foods in Wakefield, Nebraska, last September.

In Missouri, two workers, Joey Hale, 44, and Ben Ricks, 58, died after falling down an elevator shaft at a St. Louis construction site last month. Stephen Lemay was killed when a TV tower in Webster County collapsed near Springfield, and  Stephen Tepatt was electrocuted near Fenton, Missouri last December when the boom on his vehicle hit a high power line and was electrocuted by 12,000 volts.

And in Kansas recently, two Westar Energy employees, operations supervisors Craig Burchett and Jesse Henson died after suffering severe burns at the utility’s electrical largest plant. Jubal D. Hubbard was killed when a high-pressure valve ruptured near Olathe, Kansas last December.

Now calling out employers in these states because they are killing too many workers is a good thing, and rather rare for OSHA. I applaud it.

What bothers me, however, is the wording and tone of the press release. OSHA uses it to advertise its compliance assistance activities, highlighting its free On-site Consultation Program for small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as OSHA’s Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs“which offers practical advice on how an organization can create and integrate safety and health programs.”

So far, so good. OSHA’s consultation program and health and safety program practices — including its upcoming “Safe and Sound Week” campaign — are good things, especially for employers who want to do the right thing, but just need a little help.

But then OSHA tells employers that “By implementing and sustaining workplace safety and health programs we can help employees avoid preventable injuries and fatalities.”

To my ears, this sounds a bit blame-the-workerish. Employers are required to provide safe workplaces. Period.  Telling employers they should implement health and safety programs to “help employees” avoid injury or death is kind of like saying we should teach men about women’s rights so that we can “help women” avoid rape.

Injuries and fatalities are not preventable because employees “avoid” them. Certainly, training is important. But the bottom line is that injuries and fatalities are preventable because employers eliminate or minimize the hazards that cause them.

I’m also concerned with what’s missing from the press release.  There is no encouragement of workers to exercise their legal rights under the law. Workers have the right to get information about many of the hazards they’re exposed to, get training and file complaints with OSHA if their employer fails to provide a safe workplace. Strongly encouraging workers to use these rights to prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities is important in those companies where workers are getting killed, not because their employers haven’t taken advantage of OSHA’s valuable compliance assistance opportunities, but because they are illegally cutting corners on safety.

If OSHA really wants to put pressure on employers in these states, the agency needs to emphasize compliance with the law, enforcement of that law — and workers’ legal role in that process — as well as compliance assistance. The agency needs to not only motivate employers to take advantage of compliance assistance opportunities, but also encourage workers to use their rights to file complaints against employers who are just trying to save a buck on the backs — and lives  — of their employees.

I will undoubtedly be criticized for nit-picking the wording of a press release and not being adequately appreciative of this initiative. But words and message are important.  OSHA doesn’t work if workers don’t know their rights and aren’t encouraged to exercise them. And workplace safety doesn’t work if employers are encouraged to paternalistically “help” their workers, rather than being reminded of their legal responsibility to make their workplaces safe.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on July 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

As the Planet Warms, Can OSHA Protect Workers From Extreme Heat?

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

On July 17, more than 130 groups and individuals petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in an attempt to establish a nationwide workplace heat standard. The petition cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that at least 783 U.S. workers died as a result of extreme heat between 1992 and 2016, while at least 69,374 were seriously injured. Organized by the consumer and health advocacy group Public Citizen, the petition demonstrates how the climate change crisis will inevitably lead to more injuries and deaths, as it increases the amount of days that workers have to endure extreme heat.

There is a general OSHA requirement meant to protect individuals from workplace hazards, but advocates for a heat standard argue that this rule doesn’t do enough to protect workers from this specific danger. Environmental groups like Earthjustice, labor organizations like the United Farm Workers, and former OSHA directors Eula Bingham and David Michaels, were among those who voiced their concerns.

“Although OSHA has authority to protect workers from heat stress by enforcing [the general requirement], there are a lot of benefits to having a specific rule,” David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s climate program, told In These Times. “First, OSHA simply doesn’t do much of that type of enforcement on heat stress.

“A specific rule on heat puts employers on notice of what exactly they should do,” Arkush continued. “That’s important because many will voluntarily follow the law. It’s much better to tell employers directly what they must do to keep workers safe than to police them after the fact under a vague safety standard.”

The petition calls for a whole new set of workplace regulations geared towards extreme heat. These include sufficient shade during rest breaks, adequate hydration, stricter monitoring for heat stress and training to help supervisors cut back on heat risks. The standard would also require employers to keep records of heat-related incidents and establish a whistleblower protection program to ensure that workers could report head standard violations without fear or repercussions.

The petition comes at the same time as a new report from Public Citizen, which details the impact that extreme heat can have on workers. The report warns that global warming will worsen workplace hazards, citing a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which estimates that almost half of the world’s population will experience more than 20 days of deadly heat every year by 2100.

The report also relies on weather forecasts compiled by the nonprofit group Climate Central, which looked at 133 U.S. cities to determine how many of their workers will experience deadly levels of heat in the coming years. Public Citizen matched Climate Central’s data against Census employment statistics to estimate how severely workers will be impacted by climate change. These cities experienced an average of 20 dangerous heat days in 2000 (the National Weather Service classifies anything above 104 degrees as dangerous). By 2050, that average will increase to 58 days.

Public Citizen generated a “worker-days metric” by multiplying the amount of workers in a given occupation by the amount of dangerous heat days that the respective cities are predicted to experience. For example, if a city has 1,000 construction workers and is predicted to experience three dangerous heat days, then that city would end up with 3,000 dangerous worker-days. In 2000, agriculture workers in these 133 cities experienced 3.4 million worker-days in dangerous heat. Using Public Citizen’s metric, that number would go up to 12.8 million by 2030 and 15.3 by 2050.

The numbers are even more extreme for construction workers. In 2000, construction workers in these cities experienced 35.3 million worker-days in extreme heat. That number is set to reach 76.4 in 2030 and 95.1 million in 2050. While these numbers might seem staggering, they’re actually only conservative estimates,as they are based on 2016 population numbers and the amount of workers in these cities will likely increase.

In addition to the petition, California Rep. Judy Chu (D) announced last week on a Public Citizen press call that she will introduce a piece of related legislation soon. California is just one of three states that already has local protective heat standards, which were established in 2005 after Chu pushed them as a state assemblywoman. That fight was initiated by the United Farm Workers after a woman named Asuncion Valdivia died from heat exposure during the summer of 2004. Valdivia died after picking grapes for 10 hours in weather that was over 100 degrees. “Workers, including farmworkers who endure difficult labor and long hours to put food on our tables, are vulnerable to dangerous working conditions,” saidChu during the press event.

A study published in Nature Climate Change last year finds that the frequency of deadly heat waves is likely to increase, warning: “An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.” Despite this danger, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement last year. “I consider climate change to be not one of our big problems,” he said on the campaign trail in 2015. The administration has also drastically cut back on OSHA workplace inspections, easing regulations and workplace deaths rise.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

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. 

Groups Petition OSHA to Issue Heat Standard

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.

“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard.  High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.

Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.

And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions —  tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that

Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.

Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard

Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat.  Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.

Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.  OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s  their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.)  OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.

Three OSHA state-plan states — CaliforniaWashington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”

The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference,  promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.

The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:

  1. Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  2. Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  3. Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  4. Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  5. Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  6. Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  7. Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  8. Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  9. Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  10. Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  11. Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  12. Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 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).

Trump's Supreme Court pick is eager to take the war on workers up a notch

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Another week, another bout of Supreme Court-related horror for workers. Up this week, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad—a reminder that, even following a disastrous-for-workers Supreme Court session, things can get worse.

  • Daily Kos’ own Meteor Blades wrote about Kavanaugh’s awful SeaWorld dissent, noting that Kavanaugh’s demeanor as he makes the rounds of the senators he needs to vote to confirm him is surely a sharp contrast with “the snarls and sneers and outright contempt contained in his judicial record when he talks about workers.”
  • Brett Kavanaugh once sided with an anti-union company that scapegoated undocumented workers, Ethan Miller writes. Oh, and the son of the owner of that company? Was sentenced to prison, the company’s violations were so egregious … and then Donald Trump pardoned him.
  • Moshe Marvit writes that Trump’s Supreme Court pick could spell a fresh hell for workers, citing repeated cases in which Kavanaugh ruled against the most basic exercises of the right to organize, like wearing t-shirts critical of the employer or displaying pro-union signs in parked cars.
  • And while I haven’t come across any allegations that Kavanaugh has a history of sexual harassment—and in fact the execrable Amy Chua wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he’s been a good mentor to women (I’m not linking, the piece is so disgusting and such an indictment of the elite legal world)—it’s worth noting that Kavanaugh clerked for and remained notably close to Judge Alex Kozinski, who was forced to retire due to a well-established pattern of harassment. Did he know? It’s a question worth asking. And if he didn’t know, how didn’t he know?

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog