Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘compliance’

HR Has Never Been on the Side of Workers. #MeToo Is More Proof.

Monday, January 8th, 2018

After human resources was informed in 2014 that Emily Nestor, former front desk assistant for the Weinstein Company, was allegedly sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein, company officials reportedly informed Nestor that any complaints would be directly reported to Weinstein himself. 

And when Helen Donahue, a former Vice employee, complained to human resources in 2015 that Jason Mojica, the head of Vice News at the time, had non-consensually groped her, she says she was told by then-human resources director Nancy Ashbrooke to “forget about it and laugh it off.”

Engineer Susan Fowler says that when she complained to Uber’s human resources department that a manager had propositioned her for sex, she was instructed to either move to a different job at Uber or continue working for her alleged harasser. A manager later threatened to fire Fowler for registering the complaint with human resources, she claims.

As #MeToo testimony shines new light on these industries’ cultures of rampant sexual violence, the complicity of human resources is a thread running throughout several stories of predation and retaliation. While some have presented HR departments as a solution, the above experiences make clear that HR is at best a distraction from the real solution to workplace abuse: collective organizing led by, and accountable to, workers themselves. As unions and worker organizations have long recognized, workplace abuse will not be corrected by benevolent management—it must be defeated by worker power.

Presented as neutral arbiters, human resources departments in fact report to management and function to shield bosses from repercussions. They emerged from early anti-union efforts and social-control initiatives implemented by notorious industry titans like the Ford Motor Company—and today often house top-down efforts to undermine worker solidarity and protect companies from lawsuits. Some labor historians and organizers tell In These Times that the present climate offers an opportunity to dispense of the falsehood that human resources departments exist to protect workers.

“Human resources departments exist primarily to keep the employer from being sued,” author and longtime labor organizer Jane McAlevey tells In These Times. “While they may play functional bureaucratic roles, the chief purpose of HR departments in my experience—after a lifetime in the labor movement—is to protect the company, not workers. Obviously they will be totally ineffective to address the sexual harassment crisis in this country.”

As Weinstein and others of his ilk now fall from grace, any effective postmortem must examine human resources among the structural foundations that uphold powerful men as they perpetrate large-scale harm.

“Treating labor as a commodity”

According to the anti-harassment policy of the Society for Human Resource Management, human resources departments are in place to help employers “prevent, correct and discipline behavior” that qualifies as “unlawful discrimination or harassment of any kind.”

Yet, the history of human resources departments tells a different story.

Elizabeth Anderson is a professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It). She tells In These Times that the roots of modern-day human resources can be traced to initiatives like the Ford Motor Company’s “Sociological Department,” established in 1914. With its introduction of a $5-per-day pay rate, deemed a boost at the time, the company established codes of conduct to ensure that workers were sufficiently orderly and worthy of this sum. The Henry Ford, an organization that oversees a museum in Dearborn, Mich., describes this program:

The Sociological Department monitored employees at home, as well as on the job. Investigators made unannounced visits to employees’ homes and evaluated the cleanliness of the home, noted if the family had renters, checked with school attendance offices to determine if children were attending school and monitored bank records to verify that employees made regular deposits. Sociological Department investigators also assisted workers’ families by teaching wives about home care, cooking and hygiene.

“They really said they were going to govern workers’ lives,” says Anderson, explaining that such efforts were often aimed at “Americanizing European immigrants.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Australian sociologist Elton Mayo oversaw a series of experiments at Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory in Cicero, Ill. Researchers examined the impact that changes in conditions—for example, brightening and dimming lights—had on workers’ productivity. He concluded that workers perform better when researchers show interest in them—that the perception of attention and interest can itself boost output. The principle that attention is a key workplace motivator became the bedrock of the field of “human relations.” This field influenced companies to create human resources departments to give the appearance that workers are cared for and tended to.

But Peter Rachleff, a labor historian and executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minn., tells In These Times that there is a significant gap between appearance and reality.How can you get more of this commodity for less? How can you get more labor produced by that commodity? That’s the grounding of human resources,” he says.

“Where union busters set up camp”

Early human resources departments also had other aims. Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, tells In These Times that human resources departments emerged as “a more serious development with the rise of unions. Companies started to see them as a way of keeping unions out. They put in place practices that would buy out discontent.”

“These departments are not set up by the government, and their job is not to protect employees,” emphasizes Cappelli. “These are private organizations.”

With a spate of anti-workplace-discrimination laws and orders passed in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act, the focus of human resources shifted to protecting companies from lawsuits. “The idea was [companies] could shield themselves, and workers could be obliged to report their complaints to the internal process,” explains Anderson. “You get a huge incentive for larger corporations to set up human resources departments to shield themselves from liability.”

Today, human resources departments often operate in concert with efforts to undermine unions and other forms of worker organizing. In just one example, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Tesla in August 2017 charging that the company’s security guards and human resources personnel directly intimidated workers at a Fremont, Calif., factory for distributing pro-union materials—and ultimately forced them to leave the premises. The complaint states that a human-resources official “interrogated” an employee about “the employee’s Union and/or protected, concerted activities and/or the Union and/or protected, concerted activities of other employees.”

As McAlevey puts it, “The human resources department is the traditional place where union busters set up camp—the office out of which union-busting firms will run union-busting campaigns.”

Of course, the absence of a human resources department is not a good in itself, and abolishing HR wouldn’t fix the problem. As Aída Chávez reported January 5 for The Intercept, The New Republic, AlterNet and The Nation Institute “had no real HR when abuses occurred” (Full disclosure: This author is a prior employee of AlterNet and formerly received reporting funding from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.)

While noting that “such departments are no panacea,” Chávez argues that “the absence of any HR department at many small news outlets creates a unique vulnerability for employees, whose fates may rest entirely in the hands of their often charismatic leaders or founders.”

And indeed, the problem of retaliation and intimidation encompasses the vast majority of industries, with or without HR. A 2003 study referenced by the federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “found that 75 percent of U.S. workers who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.”

Organizers have long argued that the solution to workplace harassment lies in building collective solidarity among workers—and tilting the balance of power away from institutions that are under the control of management, including but not limited to human resources.

There is no shortage of organizing efforts lighting the way. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) highlights its worker-led Fair Food Program as a bottom-up strategy to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States from a plethora of workplace atrocities, including sexual violence and slavery. The program includes a 24-hour, independent worker-complaint hotline, and worker-led political education and organizing programs. Through broad-based campaigning, CIW has forced 14 food industry giants to join their labor agreement.

From the fields to the factories, union and worker center members engage in day-to-day efforts to protect each other, by staging direct actions, organizing and enforcing contracts, and extending support and solidarity, in the many forms that takes. As McAlevey puts it, “What changes is if you have a union.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

OSHA Is Bleeding: Shrinking Government and Killing Workers

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Washington Post reporters Lisa Rein and Andrew Ba Trim published an excellent front page article today chronicling Donald Trump’s largely successful effort to shrink the federal government: “By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees.”

Trump hasn’t succeeded yet in passing a budget with significant cuts, so most of the reductions have come from hiring freezes, failure to hire political appointees, and increased retirements (accelerated by buy-outs) of disillusioned and frustrated career employees.

While some people who reflexively think that government is bad are cheering, the fact is that these reductions mean less protections for workers, the environment, consumers, communities, children, the poor and just about everything that makes life in this country “great.”

The Impact on OSHA and on Workers

But you’re not reading this to understand the national cataclysm; you want to know about the effects on workers and workplace safety and health.

Anti-government activist Grover Norquist was famously quoted as saying “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But tragically, what we’re looking at is not just government being drowned in a bathtub, but more workers actually dying in a bathtub.

Because when it comes to workplace safety, cutting the bureaucracy means undermining enforcement, protection for whistleblowers, support for vulnerable workers and help for small businesses.  Some of OSHA’s regional staff state that because of the hiring freeze, OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

OSHA’s enforcement and whistleblower programs are “falling apart at the seems.” The agency is “just bleeding.”

When President Trump came into office almost a year ago, he implemented a government-wide hiring freeze. That freeze stayed in place at OSHA until recently, when Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, apparently alarmed that OSHA inspection number had dropped precipitously in 2017, partially lifted the hiring freeze at OSHA, announcing in his opening remarks at a Senate hearing last month that “In August 2017, I provided OSHA with blanket approval to hire OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs), streamlining the hiring process to bring new OSHA staff on board in an expedited manner to ensure that OSHA has the necessary personnel to carry out its important work.”

But while it is true that Acosta lifted the hiring freeze for OSHA inspectors, the process is anything but streamlined from what I hear from OSHA staff. Approvals for CSHO hiring are trickling out at a snail’s pace, barely keeping up with retirements.

Second, the agency doesn’t live by CSHOs alone.

I discussed these problems with Lisa Rein, part of which she related in today’s article:

In some agencies, the number of people leaving has been crippling, according to former officials. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a wave of recent retirements has depleted the managerial staff at the enforcement agency’s 70 field offices, said Jordan Barab, who was a top OSHA official in the Obama administration. In all, the agency shed 119 permanent workers by the end of September, a 6 percent drop, personnel data shows.

“It’s starting to create major problems,” Barab said. Enforcement actions must be reviewed by supervisors in multiple offices, he said, and if too many months pass, they can be thrown out. “You can’t run an enforcement agency with no managers.”

As usual, with interviews, that was only a small part of how I described the impact on OSHA.

OSHA is, first and foremost an enforcement agency. That means that in order to ensure safe workplaces, the agency must have sufficient staff to inspect workplaces to ensure that employers are in compliance with OSHA standards and other safe workplace procedures. And, ideally, the agency should have sufficient, up-to-date standards to provide a floor for workplace safety. The agency also has a robust compliance assistance program which formerly had a Compliance Assistance Specialist (CAS) in every one of OSHA’s 100 regional and area offices. Because of budget cuts over the past several years, however, many OSHA offices no longer have CASs.  OSHA also needs enough whistleblower investigators to ensure that workers are allowed to exercise their health and safety rights without fear of retaliation.

OSHA has never had enough staff to perform all of those functions adequately. The AFL-CIO reports that if OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the nation just once, it would take 159 years. And the situation has gotten significantly worse. Since 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, the number of workers in the economy has increased by 50% and the number of OSHA inspectors has shrunk by more than 45%. OSHA had 5.3 compliance officers per million workers in 2016, compared with 14.8 in 1980.

So where are we today and what is the impact of Trump’s efforts to shrink government?

Just hiring inspectors only addresses part of the problem. The hiring freeze continues for OSHA managers, administrative staff, whistleblower investigators and others. And this presents a major problem for workers.

As I said above, OSHA has only 6 months to complete an inspection. One day more, and the gets thrown out. Now, I’m not too worried about OSHA cases being thrown out for running over the deadline. I’m more concerned about the quality, speed and scope of the investigations. Too much work and too little staff will mean a number of things, none of them good:

  • In a quest to keep the inspection numbers up, OSHA inspectors may focus on the “easy” cases. A construction site, for example, will yield more and faster inspections and citations than a workplace violence case, a major chemical release or a case involving musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Just hiring CSHO’s and not filling managerial, administrative or legal staff just moves the bottleneck from the inspection itself, up the ladder.The larger and more complicated a case is, the more levels of OSHA (and Solicitor) review it must go through, and the greater likelihood that it will be challenged in court. If OSHA doesn’t have all of its ducks in a row, the case will be lost and if cases are lost in court because there isn’t enough managerial or legal staff to conduct a thorough review, it’s not just a legal problem, it’s a safety problem. The hazards will not  be eliminated and more workers will get injured, ill or killed.
  • And the failure to hire administrative staff means that instead of inspecting workplaces and managing cases, CSHO’s and supervisors spend their shrinking time inputting data, filing reports and doing all of the other administrative work that would better be done by administrative staff. Not exactly a good use of taxpayer dollars.
  • And even if cases aren’t dropped for failure to meet the 6-month deadline, they will take longer to issue. And being as employers don’t have to fix the problems in their workplaces until the citations are issued, workers will be exposed to dangerous conditions for longer.
  • A shortage of inspectors means that many offices only have time to react to worker fatalities and hospitalizations after they happen, rather than putting resources into pro-active planned (or programmed) inspections of high-hazard workplaces.
  • Retirements don’t happen evenly across the agency. Some area and regional offices are hit much harder than others. But a hiring freeze reduces OSHA’s ability to staff up  in those offices that are having the most shortages.   Either the workers covered by those offices are under-served, or staff has to be temporarily assigned to the problem offices, further increasing the agency’s budget problems.

The Post also notes that the Department of Labor “declined to comment on the current number of OSHA managers but said that new inspectors have been hired in recent months, helping increase the number of safety and health inspections in 2017 — the first such boost in five years.”

This is patently false. OSHA hasn’t had a budget increase since 2010,  and I can’t find anyone inside or outside of OSHA who can tell me what they’re talking about.

Whither The Whistleblower Program?

The hiring freeze also remains for whistleblower investigators. About 60% of OSHA whistleblower cases address retaliation against a worker for exercising their health and safety rights, the other 40% fall under 21 additional whistleblower laws that Congress has given OSHA to enforce — everything from environmental laws, rail safety, nuclear power plants, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and many others.

Until the Obama administration, the whistleblower program had been neglected stepchild at OSHA — underfunded and ignored. Enormous progress was made over the 8 years of the Obama administration, creating a separate directorate, a separate budget item, making it easier to file complaints on-line, increasing staff, modernizing procedures, re-organizing management and reducing the backlog of open cases. Nevertheless, even with significant progress, the program remains troubled and underfunded, and the continuing hiring freeze threatens much of the progress made during the Obama administration with the backlog of open cases rising back to unacceptable levels.

Agencies on Death Row

The Post also discusses the impact of Trump’s — as yet unsuccessful — plan to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board. The reports of the death of the CSB is most likely premature as both the House nor the Senate budget bills fully fund the agency for FY 18, but the threat nevertheless has an effect. Aside from the obvious hit on the staff’s morale, Board Chair Vanessa Sutherland describes how the CSB’s tiny staff has to spend time planning for its own demise, even while conducting its normal business of investigating chemical plant incidents.  And although it’s not raised in the article, it will inevitably make it harder to attract (or retain) talented staff while the Sword of Damocles weighs over its head.

Conclusion

So, you might ask, how does any of this make sense?

Fourteen workers a day were killed in the workplace last year, and the number of workers killed annually has gone up for the last three years.  Workplace deaths and injuries are estimated to cost between $250 billion and $360 billion a year, and OSHA’s current annual budget is a measly $552 million.

The bottom line is that shrinking government is not just about reducing employees and “bureaucrats,” and saving taxpayer dollars; it means limbs severed and lives lost.

Post journalist Juliet Eilperin in a short article in today’s “2018: The Year in Preview” section predicts that “Trump’s war on the bureaucracy will hit some limits — it’s hard to shrink government and also keep it operating.”

But that doesn’t make me feel better.

Because maybe they don’t want to keep it operating.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 31, 2017. 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). He has also worked for the House Education and Labor Committee, the Chemical Safety Board, the AFL-CIO and an earlier stint at OSHA during the Clinton administration.

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