Labor Dep't cuts could jeopardize workplace safety enforcement

The U.S. has 8 million worksites to inspect and 1,838 state and federal inspectors to do it — enough to visit each place about once every 98 years.

But don’t worry, President Trump has a plan — to make it worse.

President Trump has proposed a 21% budget cut to the Department of Labor — a move many worker advocates say could wipe out some of the agency’s key programs to improve job site safety and enforce existing labor laws.

The potential funding slash was revealed March 16, when Trump outlined his proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

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The White House gave few details on what would have to be whacked if the Labor Department lost a fifth of its budget.

But there’s at least one program already believed to be on the chopping block — and it’s dedicated to worker safety, said Jordan Barab, the Labor Department’s former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The Susan Harwood grant program, started in the 1980s, provides $ 10 million a year for safety training for workers,” Barab said.

Under the Obama administration, the grant program — which doles out funds to non-profit groups, unions and other organizations to provide worker safety training — focused on those considered vulnerable to job exploitation, Barab said.

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“We tried to address concerns of workers like day laborers, or non- or limited-English speaking workers — basically those that OSHA had a hard time reaching and who don’t have the same access to information about their rights as other workers,” he said.

It’s the last issue in particular that keeps him up at night, he said.

“It’s not just about providing training on how to stay safe — it’s training to make sure workers know they have rights that protect them,” Barab said.

When it came to safety issues, OSHA often focuses on “high-hazard” industries.

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Labor expert Terri Gerstein warns of an "enforcement vacuum" if the drastically cut budget is approved.

Labor expert Terri Gerstein warns of an “enforcement vacuum” if the drastically cut budget is approved.

(YouTube)

According to the latest available data, this means the construction, transportation and agriculture industries — the three sectors with the highest rates of injury.

In 2015, 937 construction workers died on the job, along with 765 transportation workers and 570 workers in fishing and forestry.

Those three industries far exceeded the 26 deaths in mining and the 89 in oil and gas extraction, according to the AFL-CIO’s annual report, “Death on the Job” released in late April.

The Harwood grants have been in the crosshairs of conservative Republicans for decades, and it’s one of the first programs that will disappear if the department’s funding dries up, Barab said.

The training Harwood grants provide is vital in part because OSHA is so small to begin with: 1,838 inspectors to check 8 million worksites across the U.S., according to the AFL-CIO.

That’s one inspector for every 76,402 workers, the union said.

Trump’s proposed budget cuts also raise real concerns about enforcing laws, Barab said.

“Any cut in enforcement means more workers sick, more workers injured and more who will die at the workplace,” Barab added.

The potential for an “enforcement vacuum” is bigger than many realize, added Terri Gerstein, former labor bureau chief for New York’s Attorney General’s Office and former deputy commissioner for the state Department of Labor.

Some states are prohibited from enforcing OSHA regulations in the private sector — meaning they can’t step in to protect workers if the federal government isn’t doing its job.

“The budget cuts might affect the state enforcement agencies, since the federal government is retreating from aggressively protecting workers,” Gerstein said. “There’s an even greater concern …. about how to ensure that there is some governmental presence in places where state authorities are not looking to protect workers’ rights,” she said.

Workplace fatalities are a scary reality for many.

Workplace fatalities are a scary reality for many.

(Richard Harbus/for New York Daily News)

Gerstein also noted that enforcement of Labor Department wage and overtime protections could suffer because of Trump’s hardline stance on deporting undocumented immigrants — many of whom are exploited at the workplace but are too afraid to talk to authorities.

“Even in the best of circumstances it’s hard to get undocumented workers to talk to government … The whole situation greatly exacerbates what was already very challenging for labor law enforcement,” Gerstein said.

Within the Labor Department, the “chilling effect” of Trump’s policies is already being felt — and the worries about what actual programs will be cut are under constant discussion, said Ian Pajer-Rogers of Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based non-profit that deals with some 60 worker centers across the country.

His organization coordinates with grassroots community groups to form a bridge between undocumented and other vulnerable workers and the government agencies tasked with protecting them, he said.

In recent years IWJ collaborated closely with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division — the enforcement arm that investigates allegations of pay theft and overtime abuses.

IWJ operated in tandem with CORPS — Community Outreach and Resource Planning Specialists — to investigate possible violations without costing workers their jobs or putting them in jeopardy of deportation.

Since Trump’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Pajer-Rogers said, he’s already been told by Labor Department workers that most enforcement efforts will go away.

“I’ve been told, directly, that when the agency has moments like this when work is defunded and deprioritized, they have to revert to ‘engagement’ efforts,” he said. “So it’s going out to educate companies about how not to commit wage theft as opposed to going out to enforce laws to punish those committing wage theft.”

While there’s still hope that state agencies can pick up some of the slack around pay and overtime violations, Pajer-Rogers fears a far more apathetic Labor Department under Trump and his Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta.

“Without the resources there … well, laws are good only as long as you have enforcement around them,” he said.

Tags:
on the job
donald trump
taxes and spending

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