Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

Trump’s Supreme Court Pick Could Spell a Fresh Hell for Workers’ Rights

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, Chief Justice John Roberts, a fellow conservative, will become the ideological and political center of the Supreme Court, and protections for women, minorities, voting rights, civil liberties and more could come under threat. Workers and labor unions should be particularly concerned about Judge Kavanaugh’s history of siding with businesses against workers and for pushing a deregulatory agenda.

In his 13 years on the Court, Chief Justice Roberts has helped to unleash unlimited corporate money into politics, open the door to mass voter disenfranchisement and lay the groundwork to strengthen the power of corporations over consumers and employees. He has also, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, led the conservative project of “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.” This is who will now be the swing vote on the Supreme Court if Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Kavanaugh, who is 53 years old, once clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who abruptly retired last year after a long history of sexual harassment was revealed. Previously, Kavanaugh worked with Kenneth Starr to investigate President Clinton and draft the report that lead to Clinton’s impeachment. Over his last 12 years on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,  Kavanaugh has shown himself to be an extraordinarily conservative judge. An analysis by Axios determined that Kavanaugh is just slightly less conservative than the most conservative member of the Court, Clarence Thomas.

A review of Judge Kavanaugh’s decisions regarding workers’ rights shows a disturbing trend of siding with employers on a range of issues.

In Southern New England Telephone Co. v. NLRB (2015), Kavanaugh overruled the NLRB’s decision that the employer committed an unfair labor practice when it barred workers from wearing T-shirts that said, “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. Under the law, employees are permitted to wear union apparel to work, and the NLRB found that these shirts were protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The Board rejected the argument that “special circumstances” warranted limiting workers’ rights, because no reasonable person would conclude that the worker was a prison convict.

Kavanaugh rejected the Board’s legal analysis, writing, “Common sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes. … No company, at least one that is interested in keeping its customers, presumably wants its employees walking into people’s homes wearing shirts that say ‘Inmate’ and ‘Prisoner.’” Kavanaugh was undoubtedly correct in his understanding of the company’s desire not to have workers wear such shirts, which is precisely why the workers did so. What the unions did in wearing the shirts was apply pressure in a labor dispute in a manner that the law has long allowed. However, Kavanaugh criticized the Board’s analysis, writing that “the appropriate test for ‘special circumstances’ is not whether AT&T’s customers would confuse the ‘Inmate/Prisoner’ shirt with actual prison garb, but whether AT&T could reasonably believe that the message may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image.” By shifting the focus to the employer’s public image, Kavanaugh undercut the right of workers to publicly protest and dissent.

In Verizon New England Inc. v. NLRB (2016), Kavanaugh overturned the NLRB’s ruling that workers could display pro-union signs in their cars parked in the company parking lot after the union waived its members’ right to picket. In his decision, Kavanaugh held that “No hard-and-fast definition of the term ‘picketing’ excludes the visible display of pro-union signs in employees’ cars rather than in employees’ hands, especially when the cars are lined up in the employer’s parking lot and thus visible to passers-by in the same way as a picket line.” Therefore, according to Kavanaugh, the union’s waiver of the right to picket also applied to signs left in cars.

Judge Kavanaugh again overruled a pro-worker NLRB decision in Venetian Casino Resort, L.L.C. v. NLRB (2015). The NLRB had determined that the casino committed an unfair labor practice when, in response to a peaceful demonstration by employees (for which they had a permit), the casino called the police on the workers. Citing the First Amendment, Kavanaugh held that “When a person petitions the government in good faith, the First Amendment prohibits any sanction on that action.” Calling the police to enforce state trespassing laws, Kavanaugh concluded, deserved such protection.

In UFCW AFL CIO 540 v. NLRB (2014), Judge Kavanaugh issued an anti-worker decision involving Wal-Mart’s “meat wars.” After 10 meat cutters in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to form the first union at a Wal-Mart, the company closed its meat operations in 180 stores and switched to pre-packaged meats. (The notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart denied that its decision had anything to do with the union vote.) After the switch, Wal-Mart refused to bargain with the meat cutters, arguing that they no longer constituted an appropriate bargaining unit. Judge Kavanaugh agreed with Wal-Mart’s argument, but did write that Wal-Mart must bargain with the union over the effects of the conversion of the employees.

Judge Kavanaugh has consistently sided with employers in labor law cases, to the detriment of workers’ labor rights. He also has argued that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established in 2011, is unconstitutional, and Aaron Klein, director of the Center on Regulation and Markets at the Brookings Institution, has said that his nomination “could reverse over a century of American financial regulation.”

Labor advocates should be extremely concerned about this ideological bent if Kavanaugh becomes a justice on an already very business friendly—and conservative—Supreme Court.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Workplace Deaths Are Rising. Trump-Era Budget Cuts Could Make It Worse.

Monday, June 18th, 2018

In an alarming development in the world of workplace safety, the latest statistics reveal that the number of accidental deaths on the job in America is on the rise, reversing the longer-term trend toward fewer fatal incidents.

The number of deaths hit a total of 5,190 in 2016, up from 4,836 in 2015, according to an April 2018 report by the AFL-CIO. That’s about 14 deaths each day from preventable worker accidents. It’s also the third year in a row that the number has inched up, and the highest death rate since 2010, the labor federation reported.

Workplace safety systems are “definitely in the failure mode,” says Peter Dooley, a consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health who was worked closely with labor unions over the years. “In the last two years it is getting dramatically worse. It’s just outrageous.” 

The precise reasons for the rise are not simply stated, adds Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s long-time director of occupational safety and health. Overall patterns such as very high rates of injury in the logging and construction industries are consistent over time, she says, and there is no single employment trend that accounts for the recent rise. “The numbers are actually down in construction, but they are up almost everywhere else,” she says.

Inadequate enforcement of existing safety rules is the most commonly cited explanation for the rise, Seminario tells In These Times. A Jan. 8 report from NBC News estimates that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs only about 1,000 inspectors to cover all workplaces in America—and that the number of inspectors has declined four percent since President Donald Trump took office. The number of inspectors is far too low to be effective, Seminario suggests, and OSHA has been “under resourced” for years, including during the Obama administration years.

“Construction is a good example. OSHA has a big focus on construction and construction deaths are down. The areas where OSHA has less interest are up,” she says

The figures cited by Seminario and Dooley are taken from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The way the figures are compiled is a problem in itself, Dooley says, because it zealously protects the anonymity of employers. That diverts attention from specific workplace behavior that needs close examination and corrective action to reduce accidental deaths over time, he says. 

The National Council’s answer to this problem is to publish its own “Dirty Dozen” list of employers notable for health and safety problems among their workforces. The Council uses a standard of measurement that includes non-fatal injuries and other factors, but the list stands out in that it names some very well-known companies. For example, the online retailer Amazon is on the list because it has seen seven of its warehouse workers killed since 2013. Lowe’s Home Improvement operations have seen a total of 56 deaths associated with paint stripping chemicals. And the largest garbage disposal company in the United States, Waste Management, has had an excessive number of OSHA citations and fines. Other companies on the list are Tesla Motors and Dine Brands Global (owner of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants).

“There is injustice in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a totally anonymous database. There is no public record of who is dying and who the employers are,” Dooley says. The information actually does exist deep in the Labor Department files, he adds, but government policy is to keep this information out of public hands, or for use by safety experts. “This needs to be changed,” he says.

Seminario and Dooley agree that the worker safety signals coming from the Trump administration are troubling, even if the statistics are not up-to-date enough to make a direct link to increased workplace deaths. Trump’s budget proposal last year called for a 21 percent cut in Department of Labor spending, and the initial proposal for this year call for a 9 percent cut. Congress pared back last year’s proposed cut, and is expected to do so again this year, but it is clear that current Labor Department officials have no plans to take the initiative against the rise in workplace deaths, Dooley charges.

In issuing its report, the AFL-CIO noted: “The Trump administration has moved to weaken recently issued rules on beryllium and mine examinations and has delayed or abandoned the development of new protections, including regulations on workplace violence, infectious diseases, silica in mining and combustible dust.”

“At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with numerous ‘regulatory reform’ bills that would require review and culling of existing rules, make costs the primary consideration in adopting regulations, and making it virtually impossible to issue new protections.”

The reference to workplace violence represents one of the most troubling statistics buried in the government reports. According to a press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016, and workplace suicides increased by 62 to 291. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began reporting data in 1992.”

“It’s a very complicated problem,” observes Seminario. “You can devise safety regulations to avoid common and predictable accidents. But how do you do that with a homicide?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Trump administration sued after trying to gut federal workers’ union rights

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

The Trump administration is being sued by the largest union representing federal workers, which claims a new executive order that restricts union representation during work hours is unlawful and violates the First Amendment rights of its members.

The executive order was among three that Trump issued last Friday that rolled back union protections and the latest anti-union measures imposed by the administration. The lawsuit was filed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) at U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

“These changes will effectively deny thousands upon thousands of federal employees union representation,” AFGE General Counsel David Borer told ThinkProgress on Thursday. “It’s all part of an effort to destroy the unions and shrink the size of the government, in the words of some Republicans, down to the size of where you can drown it in a bathtub.”

Among a number of limitations, the “Official Time” executive order bars union representatives from spending more than 25 percent of their work hours providing representation for employees and, in the aggregate, no more than one hour per employee in their bargaining unit per year, Borer said. In other words, if there are 1,000 employees in a unit, a representative cannot spend more than 1,000 hours representing employees, he said.

Allowing union representation during work hours is common practice in the private sector and unions are required by law to represent all employees, both paying members and non-members, said Borer. Historically, the rationale for allowing union representatives to use “official time” to represent employees is because the law requires the union to provide the free service to non-members that don’t pay dues, he said.

In its lawsuit, the union argues the executive order violates the First Amendment because it does not provide valid justification for the regulations and singles out labor organizations and their representatives for “disparate, negative treatment as compared to individuals.” Because of this, it “restrains and retaliates” against the union and its employee representatives for exercising their rights to expressive association.

It also violates the Separation of Powers in the Constitution because it attempts to give agencies unilateral authority to determine whether a particular amount of official time is reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest, according to the suit.

Chemical Safety Board Dodges Trump’s Bullet Again

Friday, May 18th, 2018

But is the agency selling its soul?

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee has not only (again) defied President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, but the committee actually plans to add a million dollars to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget.  The Committee’s bill, released Monday, funds the CSB at $12 million, $1 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.  This is the second year in a row that Trump has proposed eliminating the CSB and the House has defied him.

That’s the good news. But in other news-of-the-weird, the CSB and the Chlorine Institute (CI) have issued a joint statement that, while providing some good advice (e.g. don’t scrimp on preventive maintenance), reads like an advertisement for the Institute:

CI regularly updates its written guidance for chlorine producers and users by working with its member companies to determine best practices and contracting external scientific expertise. Additionally, members share best practices during in-person meetings throughout the year. Typically, industry colleagues review highly detailed, technical, and specific safety best practices and together improve their own safety performance and that of the entire chlor-alkali industry. Similarly, there are numerous other industry conferences, classes, and organizations focused on particular issues such as corrosion, non-destructive testing or rupture disc replacement frequency among other topics.

Now, we all love these Kumbaya moments and everything, but remember, the mission of the CSB is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect poeple (sic) and the environment.” This is not to say that the CSB shouldn’t praise an organization for its consensus standards or corporate practices — and the CSB often does — but usually based on evidence resulting from an investigation about an incident that is addressed by that standard or practice.

Will this joint statement make future CSB investigations appear to be less independent and less objective in the wake of an incident that involves the use of Chlorine Institute standards?  The impact of Board investigations rests largely on the perceived objectivity of its recommendations and anything that detracts from that objectivity — or even the appearance of objectivity — will undermine the CSB’s effectiveness.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the CSB has issued this type of joint statement and it’s unclear whether the full Board even voted on it.

Agencies charged with conducting objective investigations need to maintain objectivity and the appearance of objectivity at all times.  Joint statements like this endorsing an organization’s practices that may in the future be subject to an investigation, do not generate confidence in the process.

Meanwhile, in other news, CSB staff voted last month to organize a union with the American Federation of Government Employees. The vote was 10 to 5 out of a total of 19 eligible. The CSB has been plagued by internal issues over its entire lifetime and many employees are reportedly concerned about deskilling of their jobs, dumbing down of reports with a focus on the technical causes of an incident, rather than the root causes and recommendations related to the flawed regulatory and public policy environment that can more effectively address the ongoing serious industry incidents.  Close to one-third of CSB investigators left the agency in the last year mostly due to management issues, and no investigators have been hired to replace those that have left.  Perhaps the House budget bill will encourage the CSB to begin hiring again.

Bloomberg’s Occupational Safety and Health Reporter wrote about the CSB’s organizing issues last year.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 16, 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).

Is Acosta Being Kicked Upstairs?

Monday, May 7th, 2018

If you read last Monday’s Punching In by Bloomberg Law crack reporters Benn Penn and Chris Opfer, you know that there are some management attorneys who are less than enamored of Alex Acosta’s less-than-stellar deregulatory accomplishments and wish President Trump would kick him upstairs to a judgeship, which (rumor has it) is where the 49 year old former federal prosecutor would like to end up eventually.

After all, 15 months after Trump’s inauguration and one year after Acosta was sworn in, construction workers are still breathing air free from cancer causing silica dust, thanks to the efforts of the dreaded Obama administration.  Never mind that the court unanimously rejected the industry’s attempt to overturn the rule (which Acosta’s Labor Department vigorously and successfully defended.)

But hope springs eternal. The general industry Silica standard has not yet taken effect, so the Administration could theoretically still succeed in giving foundry workers the right to get cancer at work.

Taking Acosta’s place in these corporate fever dreams would be the newly appointed and allegedly less cautious Deputy Secretary of Labor Pat Pizzella. It seems that for some people there aren’t enough Trump Cabinet agencies embroiled in scandal and the Jack Abramoff-tainted Pizzella would undoubtedly be a much better fit with the rest of Trump’s ethically challenged cabinet members than the boring, straight-laced, and (so-far) ethically untainted Acosta.

Presumably, the climax of these management attorneys’ fantasies would be the appointment of a Scott Pruitt type to head the Labor Department — without the daily scandals of course.  But this raises some issues.

First, as former OMB analyst (and current Rutgers professor) Stuart Shapiro wrote last week, Pruitt’s deregulatory “accomplishments” have been more rhetoric and failure than actual accomplishment.

The reality is that he’s made less headway than advertised. To date, Pruitt’s EPA has been taken to court repeatedly over efforts to delay or repeal regulations finalized near the end of the Obama administration. His record in court on these issues is not good. The courts have struck down six attempts to delay or roll back regulations on pesticides, lead paint and renewable-fuel requirements, The New York Times reported.

The main reason for Pruitt’s failures is that he is no better at complying with regulatory rules than his is with ethics rules.

Repealing a regulation is hard. In fact it is just as hard as enacting one. In his haste to dismantle President Obama’s environmental legacy, Pruitt has skirted the procedural requirements necessary to defend his actions in court.  Those procedures are not easy to follow, but failure to follow them means near-certain defeat in the courts. The best way to make sure that the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed is to rely on the experts, the civil servants within EPA.

And EPA’s civil servants are fleeing. (See “Rats,” “Sinking Ship.”)

Acosta, to his credit, seems to understand that problem, aside from the momentary lapse when he neglected to include the economic analysis of his tipping rule. But with the help of Congress, everyone pretty much kissed and made up over that too.

Yes, in theory, Acosta could ride into the sunset to be replaced with a Scott Pruitt/Andy Puzder Frankenstein’s monster at DOL who would try to rape and pillage worker protections without passing go — and without complying with the Administrative Procedures Act, the OSH Act or the many other laws that lay out rulemaking procedures based on the tiresome requirements of evidence, science and public input.

But as we’ve seen in this administration, undermining an agency’s mission and cutting corners on administrative procedures tends to go hand-in-hand with cutting corners on ethics — as well as the law.  Not a very good combination if your goal is to actually get something accomplished.

Alex Acosta may not my my ideal Labor Secretary by a long shot — and he will certainly never live down his infamous naming of Ronald Reagan to the Labor Hall of Honor (a deed that will be as hard to live down as Mitt Romney heading out on the family vacation with his dog strapped to the top of this car,) but he’s about the best we could expect in a Trump administration that sports such Cabinet luminaries as Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, Ryan Zinke, Steve Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos.

After all, he actually defended his failure to slash the budgets of DOL’s enforcement agencies before Congress by making the shockingly un-Republican argument that “Those are priorities. These laws matter. They’ve been passed by Congress. They are the laws of the land. They need to be enforced.”

Which is probably why this cabal of one-martini-over-the-line corporate attorneys would like to show him the door.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 5, 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).

Corporate America’s Stealth Campaign to Stop Worker and Environmental Protections

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Admit it. If they could, Trump and most Republicans would like to just get rid of OSHA, EPA the Consumer Product Safety Commission and any other agency — or law — that protects workers, consumers or the environment.

This is all part of Steve Bannon’s goal of “deconstructing the Administrative State” — making sure that corporate America’s quest for ever higher profits and control over our lives is not hindered by any of these damn government agencies that Congress created when the liberals ruled the earth.

But simply repealing the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act probably wouldn’t play well even in Trump-America where people still like to come home alive at the end of the day and hate the idea of their kids drinking poisoned water.

So what to do, what to do?

How about just making sure the government can’t issue any new protections: the standards and regulations that put teeth into the laws?

The thriving New York Times has described two of their clever strategies that would do just that.

Get Rid of the Science: “Weaponized Transparency”

The Times reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is proposing to “no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine.” Pruitt is doing this in the name of “transparency.” After all, what could be wrong with only allowing science where the raw data is available for other scientists to critique?

Well, here’s the problem.

Opponents and supporters agree that the proposed new policy has its roots in the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths. The “Six Cities” study, widely considered one of the most influential public health examinations ever conducted, tracked thousands of people for nearly two decades and ultimately formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations.

The problem is that this study used the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 individuals.  And if this private data were made available for public review, EPA “would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a federal estimate, to redact private information.”

The bottom line, critics say, is that if the E.P.A. is limited to considering only studies in which the data is publicly available, the agency will have a narrower and incomplete body of research to draw on when considering regulations.

It’s not like no one has ever looked at this data critically. It’s all peer reviewed by other specialists in the field.

It’s “weaponized transparency,” according to Former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels, currently a professor at George Washington University and author of Doubt Is Their Product:  How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

This is not just an academic debate. Not only would this policy chill scientific study and make it more difficult to protect workers and the environment, it would cost lives — thousands of lives:

Opponents of the proposed E.P.A. policy say the effort all comes back to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long frustration over the Six Cities study and a related one sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Those studies, which have been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed, underpinned the first Clean Air Act regulations on fine particulate matter. Based on the research, the E.P.A. in 1997 estimated the rule would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis.

So who’s behind this nefarious, and not so subtle plot? Who else but the Koch brothers, as well as Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy and the American Chemistry Council.

Oh, and there’s also a bill in Congress that would mandate the same thing: The “Honest and Open New E.P.A. Science Treatment Act,” also known as the “Honest Act.”

Honestly.

Weaponizing the Judiciary

Just in case restricting the data that forms the basis of protective regulations doesn’t work, the Trump administration, Republicans in Congress and corporate American have another card up their sleeve: making sure the courts reject any regulations that manage to slip through.

One area that the Trump administration has seen great success has been in the selection and confirmation of conservative judges who have passed a critical “litmus test.” Usually, when we hear the words judicial “litmus test” it’s related to the debate over abortion.

But according to an article in this morning’s New York Times, the Trump administration is applying another litmus test: reining in what conservatives call “the administrative state” by limiting the discretion that agencies like OSHA or EPA have when they issue complex regulations.

What does that mean? When Congress passes a law like the Occupational Safety and Health Act, they give OSHA the authority to issue specific standards, and the law provides some guidance for the criteria the agency has to follow. For example, OSHA has to ensure that their standards are economically and technologically feasible.  But Congress doesn’t have the time or expertise to issue the specific standards — like those to protect workers against silica exposure, trench collapses or falls. They leave that lengthy and complex work to the agency.

When the new standards are inevitably challenged in court by the affected industries, the business associations argue that the agency didn’t evaluate the science properly, or didn’t ensure feasibility in the affected industries. The judges, who like your local Congresspersons, are not experts in toxicology or risk assessment, have traditionally deferred to the agencies’ expertise: “You’ve got some science here; you’ve got some science there. Congress says that the agencies have the expertise, so we defer to their decision.”

But not for much longer, if Trump and corporate America have their way. He is appointing federal judges who are “devoted to a legal doctrine that challenges the broad power federal agencies have to interpret laws and enforce regulations.”

Are you scared? If not, you should be:

This approach has shaped what could be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring legacies, with the potential to dramatically shrink the body of federal regulations and programs that touch almost every aspect of American life — like workplace safety, environmental protection and health care.

If it is successful, the Trump administration could come closer than any Republican White House has to achieving a goal conservatives have longed for since the New Deal: curtailing the reach of a federal government they say has grown far too large and invasive.

According to Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), these ideas have been around for a long time, “but have never been weaponized in the way that Trump is doing now with his judicial nominees.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on March 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Legislation from DeLauro and Clark Would Strengthen Protections for Tipped Workers

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Worker Safety & Health Budget Again Undermines Worker Safety & Health

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Earlier this week, President Trump submitted his Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal. This is his second budget proposal, and like the first, although it left OSHA’s budget fairly flat, it once again proposes to slash or eliminate important safety and health programs and agencies.  And this is Trump’s second OSHA budget that has been proposed with no Assistant Secretary yet in residence.  Scott Mugno’s nomination continues to languish in the Senate.

First, the good news. With one major exception (see below), OSHA’s budget would remain mostly level– with a small $5.1 million (2.4% and 42 full time employees) increase over FY 2017 in the enforcement budget, as well as a small $3 million (4.2%) increase in compliance assistance — mostly to add Compliance Assistance Specialists who had been cut in previous years due to budget limitations, and an addition of eight staff to work exclusively on the Voluntary Protection Programs.

Meanwhile, in addition to trying once again to eliminate the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program and the Chemical Safety Board, the administration’s proposal also eliminates two OSHA Advisory Committees dealing with whistleblower protections and federal employee safety and health.

Harwood and the Chemical Safety Board: Deja Vu All Over Again

In what can only be characterized as the triumph of hope over experience, the Trump administration has yet again proposed the elimination of OSHA’s Susan Harwood Worker Training Program and the independent Chemical Safety Board — two proposals that had about as much lift as a Butterball Turkey when the administration floated these ideas in its FY 2018 budget.

Now this budget is not necessarily bad news for us bloggers. I mean, I don’t have to write any new stories about how terrible the elimination of the Susan Harwood Worker Training Program would be for the safety of workers — especially vulnerable workers like the mostly immigrant day-laborers who have been rebuilding Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

And I don’t have to write much new about how pointless the elimination of the Chemical Safety Board would be for chemical plant safety — and the safety of workers at the plants and communities surrounding the plants.

Because you, good readers, already know all of that. But perhaps more important, Congress already knows that. Certainly both the House and the Senate understand the importance of the Chemical Safety Board as they displayed when the relevant Appropriations bills in both houses voted to keep the CSB fully funded in the 2018 budget after the Trump administration recommended its elimination.

Similarly, after being sentenced to death in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal (and in the House of Representatives’ Labor appropriations bill), the Senate Appropriations committee voted on a bipartisan basis to ignore the Administration’s proposal (and the House bill) and maintain the program.

CSB and Harwood: There’s no education from the second kick of a mule.

But these guys aren’t only irresponsible and just plain wrong; they’re also lazy. You’d think that after failing last year to eliminate these programs, they’d at least come up with some new and improved justifications. But no. As in 2018, the 2019 budget erroneously justifies the elimination of the Harwood program on an alleged lack of “evidence that the program is effective.” And they again incorrectly justify the CSB’s elimination on the the ‘relative duplicative nature of its work,” presumably assuming that the CSB duplicates the efforts of OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The CSB, however, is not discouraged. Being an independent agency, they submitted their own $12.1 million budget request to keep the agency open. The board is currently conducting nine open investigations: Red Mountain Operating, Arkema Inc., Didion Milling Inc., Midland Resource Recovery, Loy Lange Box Co., Packaging Corporation of America, Sunoco Logistics Partners LP, Enterprise Products Partners LP and DuPont.

I’m not going to waste scarce electrons or your valuable time explaining again why these justifications are — to put it mildly — bogus. If you want to re-read what I wrote last here about these proposals, you can start here.  (Here is much more on the importance of the Chemical Safety Board and the Harwood Grants.) And I’m sure we’ll be writing more about the importance of these programs in the near future.

There’s a saying that there’s no education from the second kick of a mule.  With a little lobbying and common sense, we can only hope that the Trump administration will get to witness that phenomenon with its 2019 workplace safety and health budget.

Compliance Assistance and OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program

OSHA’s federal compliance assistance budget is slated for a 4.2% increase which will include 8 employees fully dedicated to the Voluntary Protection Program and 24 Compliance Assistance Specialists (CAS).  OSHA once had a CAS in every one of its 70 Area Offices, but budget cuts and the hiring freeze had cut those numbers significantly.

VPP, established in 1982 to recognize workplaces with exemplary safety and health management systems, has always been a favorite program of Republican administrations. As we’ve discussed, however, the program has faced significant integrity and funding issues over the past several years. Trump’s OSHA has held two stakeholder meetings to discuss problems with the program and although the outcome of those meetings have never been released by OSHA, the agency is doubling down on VPP growth. According to OSHA’s Congressional Budget Justification,  “with the addition of 24 CAS and 8 VPP staff, OSHA anticipates approving 155 new VPP sites and re-approving 395 sites in FY 2019.”

One notable change in the Trump budget from previous budgets is the total omission of a focus in its compliance assistance program on vulnerable workers, such as day laborers,  temporary workers and workers with limited English proficiency who often work in high hazard industries and are difficult for OSHA to reach. It is a common myth that the Obama administration focused totally on enforcement to the neglect of compliance assistance. The truth is that the Obama administration conducted a major compliance assistance program, but instead of focusing exclusively on assistance for employers, the Obama administration focused compliance assistance resources on helping vulnerable workers. OSHA’s CBJ doesn’t even mention vulnerable workers or working with labor unions in its Compliance Assistance section, focusing exclusively on broadening “its reach, assistance, and support to small businesses and other employers working to comply with OSHA requirements and protect their workers,” as well as working with more “trade associations, organizations, and employers it engages with directly through its cooperative programs.”

OSHA Standards

OSHA’s Budget Justification states that it plans to issue three final rules, including one on beryllium, and four proposed rules. As you may recall, OSHA proposed last June to weaken beryllium protections for maritime and construction workers.  (The schedule for this is a bit unclear as the CBJ also states that “OSHA anticipates that this rulemaking will proceed fairly quickly with a proposal either late 2018 or very early 2019.” Given that OSHA already issued a proposal in June 2017, it’s unclear whether this statement means they’ll issue a new proposal or it’s just a result of  lousy proofreading.)

Other final standards include a minor revision addressing respirator fit-test methods, and a revision of the recordkeeping standard.  OSHA has stated for some time that it doesn’t like parts of the Obama administration’s electronic recordkeeping regulation which requires employers to send injury and illness data to OSHA, and to prohibit retaliation against workers for reporting injuries or illnesses.  Given that no proposal has yet appeared, it’s possible, but unlikely that a final revised rule will be issued before October 1, 2019, the end of FY 2019.

The only small business (SBREFA) review mentioned is one for a cell tower standard. No mention of a SBREFA panel for workplace violence. SBREFA is the first formal step of the regulatory process.

In addition to numerous guidance products, OSHA plans to use its standards funding to throw a bone to its industry friends by conducting “retrospective reviews to revise and update existing standards in ways that will better protect workers and, where possible, reduce burden on employers.” Don’t expect much there. A thorough review of a standard or regulation takes years and generally confirms that the original standard protected workers more effectively, and at a lower cost than OSHA had originally predicted.

NIOSH

As it did last year, the Trump administration proposes to whack NIOSH, continuing to show its disdain for evidence-based practice that is supported by real research.  Trump is again proposing to cut NIOSH job safety research by $135.2 million (40%), and proposes to eliminate educational research centers, agriculture, forestry and fishing research centers and external research programs.

Then it gets weird. Trump is proposing to take NIOSH out of CDC and then possibly combine it at a later date with other parts of the National Institutes of Health.  Section 22 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act established the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Health and Human Services to “conduct research,experiments, and demonstrations relating to occupational safety and health.”  NIOSH is currently part of the Centers for Disease Control, which is also part of HHS.  How this envisioned reorganization will work with the OSHAct that establishes a separate institute specifically for Occupational Safety and Health remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the World Trade Center Health Program (administered by NIOSH director by law) would remain at CDC.

MSHA

Fifteen coal miners died on the job in 2017, compared with only 8 in 2016, but Trump apparently sees those troubling numbers as a reason to cut coal enforcement by $3 million. the overall budget for the agency will increase by $2 million, with funding for metal/non-metal enforcement increasing by $2.5 million

Advice? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Advice

OSHA has several advisory committees comprised of outside experts intended to advise, consult with and make recommendations to OSHA and DOL leadership about how to improve worker safety and health.  The agency currently has five advisory committees:  The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), the Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (MACOSH), and the Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH), the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (FACOSH) and the Whistleblower Protections Advisory Committee (WPAC.)   NACOSH and ACCSH were established by law and the others by the Secretary of Labor and the White House.

Trump wants to eliminate two OSHA Advisory Committees and none have met in over a year

The committees are populated with national experts representing labor, management and public agencies who rotate every few years. Advisory committees traditionally meet two or three times a year, but none have met in the first 13 months of this administration.

Trump’s OSHA budget proposes to eliminate two of the agency’s five advisory committees: FACOSH and WPAC.  WPAC is the newest advisory committee and was established in 2012 to help OSHA “improve the fairness, efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of OSHA’s administration of whistleblower protections.” WPAC was one of the many initiatives undertaken in the Obama administration to improve the operation of OSHA’s troubled Whistleblower Program, including creating a separate directorate and a separate budget item.  Achievements of the committee include the publication of the first-ever Recommended Practices for Employers for Addressing and Preventing Retaliation which assists employers in creating workplaces in which employees can voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

Federal employees are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, but were provided protections by Executive Order 12196 which requires each federal agency to “Furnish to employees places and conditions of employment that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  Executive Order 11612, issued by Richard Nixon, established FACOSH in order to “advice on how to reduce and keep to a minimum the number of injuries and illnesses in the federal workforce and how to encourage each federal Executive Branch department and agency to establish and maintain effective occupational safety and health programs.” Federal OSHA can cite, but not fine federal agencies and has uncovered and corrected a number of serious safety and health problems in the nation’s military bases, hospitals, prisons, hospitals and other federal facilities.

Elsewhere:

In related news, Trump’s budget

  • Cuts EPA’s budget by 34% so that the agency can eliminate “lower priority programs” and refocus on “core activities.”  Among the “lower priority programs” that the EPA is proposing to eliminate are those that address the only environmental threat that can literally destroy the earth as we know it — climate change.  After all, climate change may be good for us. “Core Activities” that need more funding apparently refer to a swollen security detail for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, his high security communications chamber and, of course, his first-class travel to points domestic and foreign.
  • Cuts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: In the midst of a flu pandemic and the ever-present threat of Ebola and the emergence of other “new” diseases, Trump is proposing to cut back CDC’s budget by $1 billion.

  • Cuts National Labor Relations Board by $25.2 million (9%)

  • Cuts Employment and Training Services by $1.3 billion (39%)

  • Cuts Unemployment Insurance and Employment Services by $45.4 million (13%)

  • Cuts Job Corp by $40.7 million (24%)

  • Eliminates the Older Worker Program

  • Cuts Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) by $13.4 million (13%). OFCCP  ensures that contractors and subcontractors who do business with the federal government comply with the legal requirement to take affirmative action and not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, or status as a protected veteran.

  • Cuts Labor Department’s International by $67.6 million (79%)

  • Cuts Women’s Bureau by $7.6 million (68%)

  • Proposes $8.5 million (22%) increase for Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) enforcement. OLMS ensures that union elections and finances are conducted legally. Republican administrations traditionally use OLMS to harass unions; hence the increased funding.

What’s Next?

This is the beginning of the FY 2019 budget process. FY 2019 begins on October 1, 2018, but the budget will not be passed by then. No Congress in recent memory has finished a budget by the end of the budget year and that prospect is even less likely in an election year.

The next step in the process will be Secretary Acosta’s testimony before the House and Senate appropriations committees.  There will then be long deliberations in the House and the Senate, and eventually both Houses of Congress and the President will have to come up with a budget that they agree on.  The process is more difficult in the Senate because 60 votes are needed to pass a budget. And as we saw last year, the House budget was much worse than the President’s proposal (although they did vote to maintain the CSB), while the Senate’s OSHA budget was better then the President’s proposal.

And, of course, depending on the outcome of the Congressional elections on November 6, Trump could be facing a Democratic House of Representatives and/or a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic majority in either house of Congress would drastically change the final budget that emerges from this process.

But nothing good in this country happens by itself. It happens because knowledgeable and caring citizens ensure that their Senators and Congressional Representatives understand the importance of these programs in protecting worker safety and health. That’s where you come in. Especially in an election year, it’s important that those running for office understand the daily hazards facing American workers and the role of the OSHA and other government agencies in making sure workers come home safely at the end of the day.  And already, just days after release of the President’s budget, opposition to his proposal to eliminate the CSB has begun.

And there will be more.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on February 15, 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 Administration Should Rescind Proposal That Allows Bosses to Pocket Working People's Tips

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

As we previously reported, President Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced a new proposed regulation to allow restaurant owners to pocket the tips of millions of tipped workers. This would result in an estimated $5.8 billion in lost wages for workers each year?wages that they rightfully earned.

And most of that would come from women’s pockets. Nearly 70% of tipped workers are women, and a majority of them work in the restaurant industry, which suffers from some of the highest rates of sexual harassment in the entire labor market. This rule would exacerbate sexual harassment because workers will now depend on the whims of owners to get their tips back.

In a letter to Congress, the AFL-CIO opposed the rule change in the strongest possible terms, calling for the proposal to be rescinded:

Just days before the comment period for this [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] closed, an extremely disturbing report appeared indicating that analysis of the costs and benefits in fact occurred, but was discarded. On Feb. 1, 2018, Bloomberg/BNA reported that the Department of Labor “scrubbed an unfavorable internal analysis from a new tip pooling proposal, shielding the public from estimates that potentially billions of dollars in gratuities could be transferred from workers to their employer.” Assuming these reports are correct, the Department of Labor should immediately make the underlying data (and the analyses that the Department conducted) available to the public. We call on the Department of Labor to do so immediately and to withdraw the related Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The AFL-CIO strongly urges the Department to withdraw the proposed rule, and instead focus its energies on promoting policies that will improve economic security for people working in low-wage jobs and empower all working people with the resources they need to combat sexual harassment in their workplaces.

The Department of Labor must provide an estimate of its proposed rules’ economic impact. However, while suspiciously claiming that such an analysis was impossible, it turns out that this wasn’t true:

Senior department political officials—faced with a government analysis showing that workers could lose billions of dollars in tips as a result of the proposal—ordered staff to revise the data methodology to lessen the expected impact, several of the sources said. Although later calculations showed progressively reduced tip losses, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team are said to have still been uncomfortable with including the data in the proposal. The officials disagreed with assumptions in the analysis that employers would retain their employees’ gratuities, rather than redistribute the money to other hourly workers. They wound up receiving approval from the White House to publish a proposal Dec. 5 that removed the economic transfer data altogether, the sources said.

The move to drop the analysis means workers, businesses, advocacy groups and others who want to weigh in on the tip pool proposal will have to do so without seeing the government’s estimate first.

Democrats in Congress quickly responded that the rule change should be abandoned, as the new rule would authorize employers to engage in wage theft against their workers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said:

You have been a proponent of more transparency and economic analysis in the rulemaking process. But if DOL hid a key economic analysis of this proposed rule—and if [Office of Management and Budget] officials were aware of and complicit in doing so—that would raise serious questions about the integrity of the rule itself, and about your role and the role of other OMB officials in the rulemaking.

Take action today and send a letter to Congress asking it to stop Trump’s tip theft rule.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Trump administration tip-stealing plan is getting hammered

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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