Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Change Comes to the Labor Department

Having a Secretary of Labor that actually believes in labor laws is already having an impact:
Soon after she became the nation's labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was "a new sheriff in town." Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable.

Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.

The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis' predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama's campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

Solis made a splash in October when OSHA slapped the largest fine in its history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions -- an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.
As you'd expect, people that have been exploiting the lack of a functioning labor department are less enthusiastic:
Some business groups say they prefer a more cooperative approach between government and businesses -- what the Bush administration called "compliance assistance."

"Our members are concerned that the department is shifting its focus from compliance assistance back to more of the 'gotcha' or aggressive enforcement first approach," said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' small business legal center.

Other business leaders point out that the rate of workplace deaths and injuries actually fell to record lows in the previous administration, while the agency also helped employees collect a record amount of back pay for overtime and minimum wage violations. Chao has claimed that success was the result of cooperating with businesses to help them understand the myriad regulations.

Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his members "want to build upon that progress and recognize what's working."
Ahh, the good old days! Things were working so well:
The business lobbyists' reaction to Solis' tenure is unsurprising, given the fact that her predecessor's Labor Department spent eight years "walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety." The Government Accountability Office found that under Chao, the agency "did an inadequate job of investigating complaints by low-wage workers who alleged that their employers were stiffing them for overtime, or failing to pay the minimum wage." In one survey, 68 percent of low-income workers reported a pay violation in the previous week alone.
Following how terribly they've handled major legislation, it's easy to forget the very real positives that come from having a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President. Making vital government institutions functional again is no small feat. And while that sounds like a low bar, it's important to remember what monsters governed us for the last 8 years. Undoing their damage isn't easy, and it's as important as any of the other things Obama has on his plate.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I am concerned about the recent article, "Labor Chief Moves on Job Safety, Workers' Rights," By Sam Hananel, Associated Press Writer that made all the national news outlets.

    Especially in the first sentence, "Soon after she became the nation's labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was "a new sheriff in town."

    In contrast,a majority of the manufacturing sector is small businesses (over 70% less than 20 employees), which is middle America, not Corporate America. These facilities do not have full-time EHS on their staff. So CSHO's receive specialized training on identifying and evaluating combustible dust fire and explosion hazards. Yet, where is the information, education, and outreach for these small businesses?

    This is where NIOSH can enter the picture as the Congress mandated in the OSH Act 1970. OSHA/NIOSH should always be mentioned in the same sentience when discussing occupational health and safety for the nation's workplace.

    Lets bring the OSH Act back and have OSHA and NIOSH working in concert together. Just my two cents from the 30,000 ft view