The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hostile GOP assails Labor secretary over new worker rules

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI)—While saying he wants to work with the Republican-run Congress during the last 10 months of his tenure, Obama Administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spent much of his time on March 16 defending his department’s worker protection rules against a hostile Republican reaction.

Testifying before the right wing-GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee, the secretary defended Labor Department rules ranging from cutting worker exposure to coal dust and silica particles to protecting 401(k) accounts against investment “advisers” who put their own financial interests before those of their worker clients.

Perez also repeated Obama’s demand that Congress raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 hourly for almost a decade. Failing that, he told lawmakers, Obama is doing what he can, through executive orders, to raise workers’ pay. That includes an executive order to foster pay equity for working women, by ordering disclosure of pay scales.

And he again asked legislators to pass paid family leave legislation – an idea that the GOP has deep-sixed for years.

Though the panel called Perez to testify on the Labor Department’s proposed budget for the year starting Oct. 1, little of the hearing focused on numbers. That’s not surprising: Elsewhere in the Capitol, the ruling Republicans were wrestling with their own radical rightists over the extremists’ attempts to further cut the budget for pro-worker and pro-people programs.

So instead, Perez touted the economic recovery from the Great Recession, and focused on pro-worker policies, including rules and enforcement. Among his points:

• A crackdown on 'bad actors': “While most employers strive to make their workplaces safe, there are still too many who ignore workplace safeguards, or whose health and safety program is based on the hope their luck will hold out and no one will get hurt. For these employers, "a strong enforcement program is the best way to ensure compliance with the law.” 

Perez said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “implemented a new special enforcement program to focus on recalcitrant violators who repeatedly endanger workers.” He added OSHA “used its enforcement tools and worked with industry associations and worker advocacy groups to ensure that temporary employees receive the same safety protections as permanent employees.”

• Defense of DOL’s rules against the financiers. “One of the highest priority projects… has been completing a rule, first proposed in 2010, aimed at ensuring that financial advisers act in the best interest of their clients. This conflict of interest rule clarifies the scope of the definition of a fiduciary, so that it clearly includes brokers and others giving investment advice to employees in 401(k) plans, IRA owners, other retirement savers and certain plan sponsors,” Perez said.

The investment advisor rule drew flak from the Republicans, led by right-wing committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn. “If we applied the same regulatory regime on the medical profession, patients would have less access to trusted physicians, and the same will be true for those seeking retirement advice,” Kline charged. And Kline criticized DOL’s planned expansion of eligibility for overtime pay. DOL would more than double the income ceiling, now $22,000 plus change – above which some workers cannot get overtime.

• Defending a new OSHA rule that pushes employers to fix problems.

“OSHA’s new severe incident reporting regulation, which took effect in January 2015, updated employer reporting requirements to enable OSHA to engage with employers who have had a serious incident, either through an inspection or a rapid response investigation (RRI),” Perez explained.

“The regulation is making OSHA aware of issues they otherwise would not have known about. In the first full year, employers submitted 10,388 reports of severe injuries, including 7,636 hospitalizations and 2,644 amputations. The RRI encourages employers to conduct an analysis of the hazards in their workplace and develop a process to address them.” 

• Said DOL is readying a final rule to bring to light the spending and activities of labor “consultants.” Though Perez did not say so, the rule is aimed at union-busters.

“The Office of Labor-Management Standards proposed a rule seeking to reform the reports filed by labor relations consultants and employers when, in a typical scenario, they make arrangements to counter a labor union organizing drive,” he said.  OLMS “would require that employers and consultants report whenever the consultants engage in indirect, as well as direct, persuader activities. This way, workers know the underlying source of the employer's anti-union campaign is a paid outsider. A final rule is currently under interagency review.”

• Advancing economic fairness, by beefing up DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, going after violators -- including in the gig economy -- and by “strategic enforcement.”

“All of our agencies tasked with protecting fairness targeted labor law violations in industries where we know they are most prevalent, and where they affect the most vulnerable workers who are unlikely to exercise their rights under the law,” Perez explained. “Our primary goal, however, is not to find violations after the fact, but to avoid violations and improve compliance in the first place. We are working towards this goal through a combination of strategic enforcement, outreach and education, and collaboration with stakeholders.”

The gig economy may “create efficiencies, but we need to make sure workers don’t have to trade security and basic rights in the process. We need inclusive innovation to create jobs and strengthen our economy without undermining or undercutting workers.” 

Perez also said Wage and Hour would increase its focus on reversing misclassification of workers as “independent contractors,” not covered by labor laws, including the right to organize. That enforcement includes outreach, and lawsuits, he testified.