A United States District Court in Texas has refused to dismiss a law suit challenging OSHA’s practice of allowing union representatives and organizers to serve as “employee representatives” in inspections of non-union worksites. If the Court ultimately sustains the plaintiff’s claims, unions will lose another often valuable organizing tool that has provided them with visibility and access to employees in connection with organizing campaigns.

The National Federation of Independent Business (‘NFIB”) filed suit to challenge an OSHA Standard Interpretation Letter (the “Letter”), which sets forth the agency’s position that an employee of a union that does not represent the workers at the site may accompany the OSHA representative conducting an inspection. The Federation argued on behalf of itself and one of its members because OSHA had permitted a representative of the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) to accompany him despite the fact the SEIU did not represent the workers at the facility. The lawsuit asserts that in allowing this, OSHA had violated its own rules and gave the union rights that it did not have under the law. In the Letter, issued in February 2013, OSHA gave a new definition of “reasonably necessary,” which supported its holding, for the first time, that a third party’s presence would be deemed “reasonably necessary,” if OSHA concluded that the presence of the third party “will make a positive contribution” to an effective inspection. The NFIB’s lawsuit contradicted both the OSHA statute itself and OSHA regulations issued in 1971 following formal rulemaking.

While OSHA asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the NFIB lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because it could not demonstrate that it had been harmed, and that the lawsuit was procedurally flawed for a number of other reasons as well, Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater denied the U.S. Department of Labor’s Motion to Dismiss, finding that “NFIB as stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the Letter flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “must himself be an employee.”

The rule Judge Fitzwater referred to, 29 U.S.C Section 1903.8(c) contained OSHA’s policies for what are referred to as “safety walk-arounds,” which are on site workplace inspections. The Letter gives employees in the workplace the right to have a representative present during such an inspection. OSHA’s own rules make clear that such “authorized representative(s) shall be an employee(s) of the employer,” but that when “good cause is shown why accompaniment by a third party who is not an employee of the employer (such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer) is reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough physical inspection of the workplace, such third party may accompany the Compliance Safety and Health Officer during the inspection.” (emphasis added)

If the ultimate outcome of the case, which seems likely, is a finding that OSHA does not have the authority to permit union representatives to participate in OSHA inspections of workplaces where they do not represent the workers, the effect would be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.

While it is too soon to say whether the Department of Labor will continue to defend the 2013 Letter and the position that OSHA has the right to permit union representatives to participate in safety and health inspections, Judge Fitzwater’s denial of the motion to dismiss raises serious doubt as to the long term viability of OSHA’s position.

By Casey M. Cosentino and Eric J. Conn

The federal government shut down all but essential operations on October 1, 2013, after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a budget or a continuing resolution for funding government operations.  As a result, OSHA (like most federal agencies) has furloughed more than 90% of its personnel and suspended most of its operations.

On September 10, 2013, with the government shutdown looming, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, David Michaels, issued a memorandum outlining OSHA’s  “Contingency Plan for Suspension of Agency Operations after September 30, 2013.”  According to the Contingency Plan, OSHA is only authorized to staff enough personnel to respond to the most significant workplace emergencies, including workplace fatalities and catastrophes as well as employee complaints related to hazards that present a high risk of death or serious physical harm.

OSHA’s Shutdown Contingency Plan was approved and included with overall shutdown plan for the Department of Labor, outlined in a September 27, 2013 Shutdown Memorandum issued by Patricia Smith, the Solcitor of Labor.  In the wake of the shutdown, of the Department of Labor’s overall workforce of 16,304 employees, only 2,954 will stay on the job.  For OSHA, that includes keeping active only 230 of its 2,235 personnel.   At OSHA’s National Office, that includes:

  • Six members of the Executive Staff;
  • Four Senior Compliance Staff;
  • Two Engineers from the Office of Construction and Engineering;
  • Four Information Technology staff;
  • The Agency Emergency Manager; and
  • One Support Staff from the Executive and Senior Compliance Staff.

At each of OSHA’s ten Regional Offices, OSHA has maintained only the following personal:

  • Regional Administrator;
  • Assistant Regional Administrator (“ARA”) for Administration and Management;
  • ARA for Enforcement;
  • ARA for Technical Support; and
  • Administrative support.

Finally, only two compliance officers (one safety and one health) at each of OSHA’s 92 Area Offices around the country are working, and only two senior chemists and two industrial hygienists remain at OSHA’s Salt Lake City Technical Center.

Moreover, the shutdown has forced furloughs in other government areas that focus on workplace safety and health.  For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), which is the independent body of judges who hear and rule on challenges to OSHA citations, has retained only two employees to maintain its computer network and to receive mail.  Here is OSHRC’s shutdown contingency plan.  None of the Department of Labor’s 122 ALJs (including the 11 OSHRC ALJs) will be active during the shutdown.  Likewise, most of the attorneys in the Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor (OSHA’s lawyers) have been furloughed during the shutdown (down to 71 from 728).  We received calls from the individual Solicitors assigned to all of our active citation contests notifying us that they would not be working during the shutdown, and our cases would not advance during that time.  The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which investigates incidents at fixed chemical facilities, has kept only three of its 40 employees and three board members active.

Notably, the federal government’s shutdown will not immediately impact non-federal employees in the twenty-one states where OSHA has approved state-run occupational safety and health programs.  In these state-plan states, normal day-to-day activities should continue as usual.

By Jordan B. Schwartz and Eric J. Conn

On March 18, 2013, President Obama nominated Thomas E. Perez, a Harvard Law School graduate and current federal prosecutor with a long track record of defending civil rights and vulnerable workers, to become the next U.S. Secretary of Labor.  Perez would replace Seth Harris, the Acting Secretary of Labor and former Deputy Secretary of Labor, who has been filling the role since Secretary Hilda Solis resigned from the post in January.

Thomas Perez’s Background 

Since October 2009, Perez has served as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.  From 2006 to 2009, Perez served as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor.  In that capacity, he led efforts to target Maryland companies who were engaging in workplace fraud by imposing new restrictions on employees who had been misclassified as independent contractors.  Perez’s efforts led to the implementation of Maryland’s Workplace Fraud Act of 2009, with him stating that the Act would “ensure that employers who attempt to cheat the system, their workers, and their competitors, will pay a steep price for their actions.”

During his tenure as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, where his jurisdiction included Maryland’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, Perez distinguished himself as a strong and vocal defender of safety protections for Maryland workers.  According to Fred Mason, the president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, Perez fought to increase funding for the state occupational safety and health plan, which had been underfunded under Governor Robert Ehrlich.  Specifically, Mason stated that “that department went for a couple years with essentially no money to hire people to enforce laws that were already on the books.”  After Perez took office, “we began to make a comeback of sorts, in terms of having the necessary workers to do the inspections.”  Similarly, Peg Seminario, safety and health director at AFL-CIO, said she considered Perez “an excellent choice” to head the Labor Department.

The Nomination of Thomas Perez 

At a time when the President has promised to create more jobs and overhaul immigration policy, Mr. Obama has presented Mr. Perez, who would be the only Hispanic in the cabinet, as an American immigration success story, whose own history would help him tackle important current controversial issues.  At the White House on March 18, Obama called Perez a “consensus builder” who “understands that our economy works best when the middle class and those working to get into the middle class have the security they need on the job, a democratic voice in the workplace, everybody playing by the same set of rules.”  At the same press conference, Perez stated that:

“as you well know, our nation still faces critical economic challenges, and the department’s mission is as important as ever. . . . I am confident that together with our partners in organized labor, the business community, grass-roots communities, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike, we can keep making progress for all working families.”

Not surprisingly, this nomination has drawn praise from worker advocates, and most Democrats have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for this nomination.  Senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement that as a former Secretary of Labor in Maryland “and a fierce defender of workers’ rights and civil rights, [Perez] is uniquely situated to serve in this important post at a critical time when Congress will be considering issues like immigration reform, reducing unemployment, and continuing our economic recovery.”

Congressional Republicans, however, have indicated a potentially rocky confirmation process and voiced their concern that Perez is the “wrong man for this job.”  In particular, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has stated that “this is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination” as “Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers.”  Additionally, Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee and thus a key house Republican on worker safety issues, has stated that “our country needs a labor secretary who will put America’s jobs before his own” and cited “troubling allegations in the media and an independent investigation” about Perez.

The Confirmation Hearing 

During the April 18, 2013 confirmation hearing, Mr. Perez stated that he would seek a balance of protecting worker safety while also encouraging economic growth.  Specifically, Mr. Perez told the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that “job safety and job growth are not mutually exclusive” and thus “it is not necessary to choose between one and the other.”  When asked what his top priority would be as labor secretary, he responded “jobs, jobs, jobs.”  He also testified that other priorities would be reauthorizing the Workplace Investment Act with bipartisan support, pension security, enforcement of wage and hour laws, job safety and equal opportunity in the workplace. Continue Reading Our Next U.S. Secretary of Labor – Still Likely to be Thomas Perez