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Workers Can ‘Don and Doff’ Off the Clock, Says Court

9:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Bill Jacobus / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

For workers in dangerous industries, safety should be non-negotiable. But the Supreme Court may have just given employers a little more leeway to put critical protections for workers on the table when bargaining over labor contracts.

In a unanimous decision issued last month in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of steelworkers who argued that they should be compensated for the time they spend suiting up before and after their workdays, or “donning and doffing” protective gear including hard hats and safety glasses. Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana had sought compensation for what they believed were unpaid overtime wages, earned during their time spent changing into and out of their work clothes, which they argued was not properly clocked.

But the justices ultimately ruled that the steel company’s labor contract did not require the company to count the “donning and doffing” of workers’ clothes as paid overtime labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that the workers will lose their claim to back pay for the time spent putting on and taking off their gear.

The Sandifer ruling is limited from a legal standpoint, as it applies only to section 203(o), an obscure provision of the FLSA governing wage negotiations in collectively-bargained union contracts. According to an analysis in legal news outlet SCOTUS Blog, section 203(o), a 1949 amendment to the FLSA, “allows collective-bargaining agreements to exclude time spent ‘changing clothes’ from the work time subject to the statute.”  Read the rest of this entry →

When Safety Becomes Voluntary: Workplace Self-Policing Program Under Scrutiny

2:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bob and Carol Simpson, CartoonWorks

 

Cross-posted from In These Times

What’s the value of a worker’s life? According to the calculus of corporate efficiency, it’s often still cheaper to put workers at risk than to spend money to protect them. And the federal government generously rewards those who have perfected this cost-containment strategy in industries where workplace hazards are just part of business as usual.

For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight with the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Touting big-name members like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the program works like a sort of gold star for employers with good safety records, which OSHA believes are capable of regulating themselves. As In These Times has reported previously, many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

To ordinary citizens this may seem like a fox guarding a hen house packed with dynamite, but many employers champion the VPP as a way of “partnering” with government to avoid onerous state oversight. Congress recently reviewed the program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which examined the VPP in light of recent reports about horrid workplace accidents, along with criticisms that the initiative undermines both labor standards and the government’s role in protecting the public from industrial exploitation.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor with the think tank Center for Progressive Reform, told ITT, “What the voluntary program does, let’s make no mistake about it, is it allows people to self-regulate. Basically, if you have someone who can fill out the paperwork, you’re off the hook.” Read the rest of this entry →

Washington’s Anti-Regulatory Crusade, and Why Your Job Hasn’t Killed You Yet

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry is spreading the gospel of Perrynomics—a magical job-creation formula based on minimal government regulation of industry, combined with tiny tax rates and tight controls on lawsuits. In a state that seems inclined to cannibalize its own government, this agenda plays well. But a closer look reveals the high price of low regulation.

In recent months, politicians in both parties, including the White House, have claimed that scaling back regulations would unleash economic growth, suggesting that businesses should be liberated from rules that protect the environment, occupational health and other public interests. But a new analysis by Public Citizen presents a few unsung gems of federal bureaucracy that help keep us happy, healthy and sane. Several of these regulatory chart-toppers, not surprisingly, were enacted in defiance of heavy political pushback:

Clearing the Air. Since the days of the Lowell mills, so-called “brown lung” has been a hallmark of the miserable toil of poorly ventilated, dust-clogged textile factories. The disease, also known as Byssinosis, has historically hit women especially hard, spreading its signature coughing and lung scarring to thousands of workers around the world. The epidemic was virtually ignored until the 1960s and 1970s. Then came OSHA’s 1978 rule requiring more lung-friendly machinery, and within a few years the prevalence of brown lung in the industry fell by an estimated 97 percent. And employers’ grumbling about the “costs” of the rule faded when it became clear that the reforms improved the industry’s efficiency as well. Read the rest of this entry →