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Washington Labor & Employment Wire » OSHA

Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 2381)

Core Provisions: This legislation directs the Secretary of Labor to issue occupational safety and health standards on safe patient handling and injury prevention to prevent musculoskeletal disorders for health care workers handling patients in health care facilities. Health care employers would be required to purchase safe lift mechanical devices and use them where feasible to eliminate manual lifting of patients by health care workers. Under the bill, health care workers can refuse assignments that would subject them to conditions in violation of the safe patient handling and injury prevention standard. The legislation includes recordkeeping and notice requirements and whistleblower protection for health care workers. It also allows for unscheduled inspections by OSHA to ensure compliance with the standard.

Status: H.R. 2381 was introduced by Rep. Conyers (D-MI) on May 13, 2009 and referred to the Committees on Education and Labor; Energy and Commerce; and Ways and Means.

House Subcommittee Hearing on Improving OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program

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On April 30, 2009, the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on “Improving OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program.” OSHA implemented its enhanced enforcement program (EEP) in 2003 to identify employers with poor compliance records and target them for heightened scrutiny, including follow-up inspections, inspections of other work sites, and more stringent settlement agreements.

The hearing focused on a recent report by the DOL’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which concluded that OSHA has failed to properly implement and enforce the EEP. Subcommittee chair Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), stated that since EEP’s implementation, “it’s clear that the EEP’s original design is flawed, and that OSHA under the Bush Administration did not even implement the program as intended.”

Elliott P. Lewis, Assistant Inspector General for Audit at the OIG discussed the EEP audit, testifying that the “overall conclusion was that OSHA did not always properly identify and conduct EEP inspections.” The audit found that in 97 percent of the EEP qualifying cases sampled, OSHA did not comply with the requirements of the program. Lewis identified a 2008 revised EEP directive as having reduced the number of qualifying cases by incorporating a qualifying history component in identifying which employers to target. 

Jordan Barab, Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA, testified that OSHA has established an EEP Revision Task Force to design a new program, preliminary titled the Severe Violators Inspection Program (SVIP). Barab explained that “SVIP will be a comprehensive revision of the existing EEP, focusing more on large companies and less on small businesses.” Barab also announced that OSHA is suspending the previous administration’s practice of establishing goals for new Voluntary Protection Program sites and alliances.

Jason C. Schwartz, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP and member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Labor Relations Committee, testified on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While the Chamber disagreed with certain aspects of the OIG report, Schwartz argued that more resources should be directed to EEP and less towards OSHA’s Site-Specific Targeting inspection program, which targets workplaces that have reported the highest injury and illness rates, because “it often targets conscientious employers who report even minor workplace related injuries.”

Eric Frumin, Health and Safety Coordinator at Change to Win, testified that “there appears to be a growing pattern of large corporations ignoring or avoiding their obligations to assure a safe workplace,” and argued for expanded investigatory capacity, company reporting requirements, and stronger criminal sanctions, such as those included in the recently introduced Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067).

House and Senate Hold Hearings on OSHA Penalties

On April 28, 2009, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and the House Committee on Education and Labor each held hearings on workplace safety. Held on Workers’ Memorial Day, which honors workers who fall sick or are killed on the job, the hearings focused on enhancing enforcement under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The House recently introduced legislation that would significantly enhance OSHA enforcement and penalties, and similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate.

The House Education and Labor Committee’s hearing was entitled “Are OSHA’s Penalties Adequate to Deter Health and Safety Violations?” During the hearing, witnesses voiced their opinions regarding the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) (H.R. 2067), introduced last week by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.  The Act is intended to increase penalties and enforcement and would expand criminal penalties to cover willful violations that result in serious injury, not only those that result in death. In addition, the Act would increase civil penalties and make certain willful violation felonies subject to up to 10 years of jail time.

In her opening remarks to the hearing, Ms. Wooley spoke in favor of her proposed legislation.  She stated that current OSHA penalties are “shockingly low. It is rare that an employer gets more than a slap on the wrist, even when a worker dies or is seriously injured, even in the most egregious cases.”

Peg Seminario, Director of Safety and Health at the AFL-CIO, testified there have been 350,000 workplace deaths since the OSH Act was enacted in 1970. During the same time period, there have been 71 prosecutions with a total of 42 months of jail time.

David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former Chief of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, testified that few OSHA violations are prosecuted because federal prosecutors focus their limited resources on felonies, not misdemeanors. Encouraging the effort to classify certain violations as felonies, he explained, “If they are just misdemeanors, you’re not going to see the prosecutions, I can guarantee you that.”

Also testifying at the hearing was Rebecca Foster, the stepmother of Jeremy Foster, who died at 19 as a result of a workplace safety violation at a timber company in Arkansas. While OSHA informed Foster’s family that it would fine the company $4,500 for the violation, the family later learned from a news report that the fine had been reduced to $2,250. Ms. Foster’s testimony encouraged a greater role for workers’ families in decisions to modify citations. PAWA would provide for such a role by requiring OSHA to inform affected employees or their representatives of any proposed modification of a citation and allow affected employees or their representatives to appeal the modification.

Republican members of the committee argued the focus should be less on punishment and more on prevention and cooperation with employers. Ranking Republican McKeon argued that a “gotcha approach” would not be effective in reducing workplace fatalities. Lawrence Halprin, an attorney at Keller and Heckman, LLP testified that “the currently penalty scheme provided by the OSH Act is adequate to achieve the goals of the OSH Act” and argued that OSHA has enforcement mechanisms that have not used effectively to date.

Similar to the House hearing, the Senate hearing focused on methods of improving worker safety.  The Senate HELP Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee’s hearing was entitled “Introducing Meaningful Incentives for Safe Workplaces and Meaningful Roles for Victims and Families.” 

Dr. Celeste Monforton, Ph.d., chair of the Occupational Health & Safety Section of the American Public Health Association and assistant research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services, advocated for tougher and more diverse penalties against employers who are repeat violators of the law.  Dr. Monforton suggested that OSHA not only apply severe monetary penalties to employers who break the law, but also use its website to make the public, workers, and competitor businesses more aware of such employers.  Dr. Monforton proposed that OSHA make prominently available, and easily searchable: (1) details of fatalities, serious injuries, or illnesses among a company’s employees or contractors; (2) evidence that a company’s management allowed employees to be exposed to serious safety or health hazards in violation of OSH standards; and (3) data depicting the company’s nationwide inspection history, violations cited, performance in abating hazards promptly, and history of contesting citations and penalties.  She stated the risk of reputational damage would likely be a great deterrent to potential violators.

Similar to the House hearing, Senate witnesses testified that the OSHA investigation process and legal proceedings must be made accessible to family members of the victim. James Frederick, Assistant Director of the United Steelworkers’ Health, Safety, and Environment Department in Pittsburgh and a proponent of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, stated that, if passed, the bill would provide “an important link for injured workers and families of workers killed on the job” to the agency.  Tammy Miser, founder of the United Support and Memorial for workplace Fatalities, also stressed the importance of family members being involved in OSHA’s accident investigation process.  She suggested that family members receive a representative to act on their behalf.  The representative would act as a conduit between the family and OSHA, supplying family member information that may assist with the agency’s investigation and keeping family members informed about the progress of the investigation. Miser stated that family members should have access to all documents gathered and produced as part of the accident investigation. In addition, Miser advocated for steeper penalties for employers who violate the law, noting the average OSHA fine is $900.03 for a serious violation.

Warren Brown, President of the American Society of Safety Engineers, cautioned the subcommittee to be careful when making changes to OSHA’s enforcement mechanisms and processes.  Brown pointed out that the vast majority of employers willingly implement safety programs “because it is the right thing to do.”  Brown suggested that OSHA direct its limited enforcement resources “where the greatest gains in safety can be achieved” - towards repeat violators of safety standards.

Corporate Injury, Illness, and Fatality Reporting Act of 2009 (H.R. 2113)

Core Provisions: This legislation is intended to increase employers’ reporting requirements under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Within 12 months of its enactment, this legislation would require the Secretary of Labor to prescribe regulations mandating that employers, who maintain more than one establishment and employ at least 500 employees, report work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses. Employers would need to maintain accurate records and make periodic reports to the Secretary of Labor on (1) the number and rates of work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses and (2) compliance data regarding inspections conducted by OSHA. The regulations would also require employers to identify each establishment and whether each establishment has been acquired, sold, or transferred since the last report.

Status: H.R. 2113 was introduced by Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL) on April 27, 2009 and referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067)

Core Provisions: This legislation would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to expand coverage under the Act, increase protections for whistleblowers, and increase penalties for certain violators. The legislation would extend OSHA coverage to state, local, and federal employees and would enhance coverage for employees in certain industries, such as the airline and railroad industries. The bill would also increase penalties for repeated and willful violations, including the possibility of felony charges when an employer’s repeated and willful violations result in serious injury or death.  Under the proposed legislation, workers and their families would also have the right to challenge reductions in fines and other penalties.

Status: H.R. 2067 was introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) on April 23, 2009 and was referred to the Committee on Education and Labor.  The Committee will hold a hearing on April 28, 2009, which is Workers’ Memorial Day, on whether OSHA penalties are sufficient to deter health and safety violations.

Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 849)

Core Provisions: This legislation would require the Secretary of Labor to issue interim and final occupational safety and health standards regarding worker exposure to combustible dust. Introduced one year after a combustible dust explosion at Imperial Sugar in Port Wentworth, Georgia killed 14 workers and injured more than 60, and one day after six workers were injured in a coal dust explosion at a suburban Milwaukee power plant, the legislation directs OSHA to issue interim rules on combustible dust within 90 days and final rules within 18 months. The new rules will be modeled after National Fire Protection Association standards. The legislation also directs OSHA to revise the Hazard Communication Standard to warn workers about the hazards of combustible dusts.

Status: Reps. Miller (D-CA), Barrow (D-GA), and Woolsey (D-CA) introduced the legislation on February 4, 2009, and it was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.  In the 110th Congress, the House passed similar legislation in April 2008 by a vote of 247-165.

The Potential Impact of the Obama Administration on the Labor and Employment Legal Landscape

Part II - Workplace Leave Policies and Regulation

This is the second installment in our series on potential changes ahead in labor and employment law with the Obama administration and the 111th Congress.  Today, we examine the issue of workplace leave policies and regulation.

In February 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became one of the first bills signed into law by President Clinton.  Under the FMLA, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period as a result of their own serious health condition; to care for a parent, spouse or child with a serious health condition; or for the birth or adoption of a child.  Since its enactment, the FMLA has become a popular source of employee benefits in the workplace, but one that imposes significant administrative burden and cost on employers.  The strengthened Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, with the support of the Obama administration, will likely expand further the scope and cost of various family leave policies.

The various bills introduced in the recent Democratic Congress provide a guide for likely legislative activity in the 111th Congress.  These bills generally increase the pool of employees eligible for employee leave and the types and duration of leave.  Additionally, on his Web site, President-elect Obama expressed support for mandating paid sick days, as well as support for efforts to encourage states to adopt paid leave programs, both of which would increase labor costs to employers.  President-elect Obama also supports legislation providing tax breaks to companies that implement flextime arrangements for their employees.

Military Leave Legislation

The Obama administration will likely support extensions of the FMLA in ways that would benefit military personnel and their families.  Such legislation, although politically popular, would nonetheless impose new administrative and labor costs on employers.

In July 2007, President-elect Obama introduced the Military Family Job Protection Act in the Senate (S. 1885, H.R. 3993), a bill that amends the FMLA to provide up to a full year of job protection, including protection from denial of any employment benefit or promotion, for any family member caring for a recovering service member at a military medical facility.

A variety of other bills (S. 1898, H.R. 3391, S. 1894, S. 1975, H.R. 3481, H.R. 5090) were also introduced in this Congress to extend FMLA benefits to the families of military personnel who care for wounded veterans.  For example, S. 1898 and S. 1975 would extend the FMLA’s provision of 12 weeks of unpaid leave to up to six months of unpaid leave for spouses, children and parents of soldiers injured in combat.  H.R. 3481 would include primary caregivers as well.  S. 1894 would extend the FMLA to up to 26 work weeks for primary caregivers of service members with combat-related injuries, and H.R. 3391 would extend the FMLA to up to 26 work weeks for spouses, children and parents.  H.R. 5090 provides FMLA coverage to qualifying part-time workers, lowering the qualifying 12-month work requirement  for veterans’ spouses, parents or children from 1,250 hours to 625 hours when that individual takes leave to care for the covered service member employees.

Expansion of the FMLA

The Obama administration will likely seek to expand the reach of the FMLA to cover employers with as few as 25 employees (down from the current 50-employee threshold).  On his campaign Web site, President-elect Obama also supported expanding the FMLA to cover additional care situations, including elder care, parental participation in school activities and leave for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Additionally, the Obama administration may pursue additional Democratic initiatives concerning expanded paid FMLA benefits.  One such bill, the Family Leave Insurance Act (S. 1681, H.R. 5873), would create a federal insurance fund, similar to the federal unemployment insurance scheme, to provide eight weeks of pay for employees taking FMLA leave.  Employees would contribute 0.2 percent of their annual earnings, and employers would match employee payments.  Benefit amounts would be tiered progressively according to income level and indexed for inflation under the Social Security wage index.  The bill would allow employers with paid leave that equals or exceeds the government plan to opt out of participating in the insurance fund.  If enacted with employer matching requirements, the 0.2 percent matching requirement could be costly to employers of qualifying employees.

Mandatory Paid Sick Leave

President-elect Obama cosponsored the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1542, S. 910), which requires employers with at least 15 employees who work at least 30 hours a week to provide seven days of paid sick leave, with pro-rated leave for part-time employees.  The leave could be used to care for an illness, injury or medical condition, or to obtain medical diagnosis or preventative care for “a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”

Flexible Work Schedules

In late 2007, President-elect Obama cosponsored the Working Families Flexibility Act (H.R. 4301, S. 2419), a broad-based proposal to reform working conditions and employee rights that would have a dramatic impact on the workplace.  With the support of the Obama administration, the 111th Congress may take up this legislation, which provides employees with the statutory right to request flexible work terms and conditions.  The Working Families Flexibility Act provides for a detailed interactive process with employees on flexible scheduling and requires employers to meet with a requesting employee and a designated representative of his or her choosing, justify any denial in writing and then meet again with any dissatisfied employee.  Employees, in turn, would be given the right to make a complaint to the Department of Labor (DOL), seek an administrative hearing and appeal the administrative hearing result to a federal court of appeals.  In addition, the Secretary of Labor may file a civil action for injunctive relief in District Court.

The bill, which exempts small businesses, would transfer significant authority over working conditions away from employers by giving employees a larger say in determining their schedules and locations of work.  While some employers may benefit from this approach to working conditions through increased worker satisfaction and productivity, some employers may bristle at these changes, which would likely place additional strain on human resources departments tasked with complying with DOL regulations, evaluating employee requests, documenting their decisions and engaging in the interactive process prescribed by the bill.  Additionally, employers will be burdened by the administrative and legal processes available to dissatisfied employees.

The Potential Impact of the Obama Administration on the Labor and Employment Legal Landscape

  Part I - Legislative Priorities

The 2008 elections are now in the record books.  With the election of Senator Obama to the presidency, and Democrats picking up as many as 20 seats in the House and at least five seats in the Senate, the new balance of power in Washington is likely to bring dramatic change in various areas of American life.  One area that is certain to be especially active is legislation and regulation affecting the workplace.  When Congress changed hands in 2006, a cascade of bills was introduced by Democrats on various labor and employment issues.  Over the intervening two years, Democrats prodded the Bush administration–through hearings, investigations and reports–to enforce various workplace laws more aggressively.

In this five-part series, we share our thoughts on how the changes in the executive and legislative branches of government might impact U.S. labor and employment law and workplace regulation in the next few years.  Based on the various legislative efforts by the Democrats over the past two years and the many promises and pledges that President-elect Obama and others made on the campaign trail, we estimate what the next two years may hold for employers in terms of legislation, regulation and enforcement priorities affecting the workplace.  Our first installment focuses on probable legislative priorities in the workplace for the fortified Democratic Congress.

The Employee Free Choice Act - Card-Check and Binding Arbitration for First Contracts

“We’re ready to take the offense for organized labor. It’s time we have a President who didn’t choke saying the word ‘union.’ We need to strengthen our unions by letting them do what they do best — organize our workers. If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union. It’s that simple. We need to stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Congress and in the White House to block card check. That’s why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate. And that’s why we’ll make it the law of the land when I’m President.”

Sen. Barack Obama, Dubuque, Iowa, Nov. 13, 2007

No single piece of labor and employment legislation has drawn as much attention in recent years as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) (H.R. 800, S. 1041).  Passed by the House in 2007, the legislation stalled in the Senate, when supporters failed to garner the necessary 60 votes to invoke cloture.  As a senator, President-elect Obama was one of the original supporters of the EFCA.  The bill has the fervent support of organized labor and, with the strengthening of Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, there is good reason to believe that it will be among the earliest priorities for the 111th Congress.

The EFCA would fundamentally change the rules in labor-management relations in the United States in two critical ways.  First, it would allow unions to bypass a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and, instead, become the certified bargaining representative of employees through a “card-check” recognition procedure.  Second, if the parties to a new collective bargaining relationship cannot agree on an agreement within a specified time, they must submit their disagreement to a federally appointed arbitration panel, who will then dictate the terms of the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  The EFCA also would significantly increase the penalties on employers who violate provisions of the National Labor Relations Act in connection with union organizing efforts.

Card-Check Certification

Under current law, a union can become the certified bargaining representative of a group of employees only if it prevails in a secret-ballot election supervised by the NLRB, or if the employer agrees to recognize the union voluntarily after the union shows that it has support from more than 50 percent of the employees.  Many employers insist on a secret-ballot election before they will recognize a union.  Under the EFCA, a union would become the certified bargaining representative by demonstrating that it collected authorization cards from a majority of the employees.  It would no longer need to seek an election or obtain the employer’s consent to voluntary recognition.

Unions typically gather authorization cards without the employer’s knowledge.  Giving unions the unilateral right to obtain certification without an election or employer consent would effectively deprive employees of the opportunity to hear the full range of arguments for and against unionization.  In effect, unions would be able to gather signatures discreetly, giving employees a pro-union argument without an opportunity for rebuttal from the employer.

The EFCA also would remove the range of protections that the NLRB has developed over the past 50 years to ensure that employees are not subject to undue influence or interference in the selection of a bargaining representative.  Unlike union elections, which must take place in “laboratory conditions,” the EFCA contains no restrictions or limitations on what unions can do to persuade employees to sign an authorization card.  Because authorization cards are valid for one year, it is conceivable that union organizers are already collecting cards in anticipation of passage of the EFCA.

Mandatory Arbitration

In addition to facilitating the certification process, the EFCA expedites the bargaining process for a first contract by creating a mediation and arbitration process to settle bargaining disputes over first collective bargaining agreements.  The EFCA provides 90 days for an employer and union to negotiate a first-time collective bargaining agreement.  If they are unsuccessful after 90 days, either party can demand mediation before the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.  After 30 days of mediation, an FMCS-appointed arbitration panel shall render a decision resolving the dispute, with the decision binding upon the parties for a period of two years, unless amended by written consent of the parties during that period.

This binding arbitration construct represents a fundamental shift in American labor policy.  Currently, employers are only required to bargain with a union but are not required to agree on any terms.  Under the EFCA, a third party could decide the proper wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

Increased Fines and Damages

Finally, the EFCA would drastically increase an employer’s potential liability for unfair labor practices.  Currently, employers are generally only liable for back pay and reinstatement of any wrongfully terminated employees.  Under the EFCA, for unfair labor practices committed during elections and first contract bargaining, an employer would be subject to treble damages through a liquidated damages provision that requires payment of twice the amount owed in back pay, as well as a civil penalty of up to $20,000 for each violation.  The EFCA has no corresponding increase in penalties for union violations.

The Road Ahead

The business community and the labor movement have girded for battle over the EFCA.  As of election day, several hundred trade groups, unions and companies had registered to lobby in connection with the legislation.  Web sites of many major unions feature significant sections devoted to EFCA.  The business community has also formed coalitions to oppose the EFCA.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an umbrella group known as the “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace” have launched efforts to fight or limit the EFCA.

The fight over the EFCA is likely to become pitched in early 2009.  The EFCA passed the House in 2007 by a margin of 241-185.  Supporters failed by just 9 votes to obtain the necessary margin to obtain cloture in the Senate, and Sen. Tim Johnson, a co-sponsor of the legislation, missed the cloture vote due to illness.  The only Republican who voted in favor of cloture was Sen. Arlen Specter.  However, in his floor statement, Sen. Specter made clear that while he supported imposing cloture, he was not expressing a conclusion on the underlying merits of the bill, and voiced his support for a bipartisan compromise solution to the problems.  Sen. Specter noted his concern over improper activities by both unions and employers in the organizing process, and expressed misgivings about the slow process to remedy violations.  He cited favorably the Canadian procedure by which elections are held within five to ten days after petitions are filed, as well as the major labor law reform legislation that failed to pass Congress in 1977, which included such a provision.

The 2008 elections created an entirely new landscape that is substantially more favorable to supporters of EFCA.  We expect that Democrats in Congress will reintroduce the legislation early in the 111th Congress and attempt to deliver a bill to the new president’s desk soon after inauguration.  At this time, there remains uncertainty in the Minnesota, Georgia, Oregon and Alaska Senate races.  In the event that the cloture vote is close, Sen. Specter might be able to play some compromise role in shaping a final bill that would pass the Senate.

The Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradeworkers (RESPECT) - Redefinition of Supervisor for Union Organizing

The EFCA is part of a broader agenda of organized labor to create a more favorable landscape for union organizing.  Another important component of this agenda is the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradeworkers (RESPECT) Act (H.R. 1644, S. 969), which would effectively narrow the definition of a “supervisor” under the National Labor Relations Act.  The net effect of the legislation, which President-elect Obama co-sponsored in the Senate, would be to both expand the number of employees eligible for unionization and limit management’s ability to use most front-line supervisors to communicate the company’s viewpoint on unionization.

In 2006, in response to direction from the Supreme Court (NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, Inc., 532 U.S. 706 (2001)), the National Labor Relations Board issued three decisions that provided for a broad definition of who could qualify as a supervisor-and, therefore, be ineligible for participation in a union-under the NLRA.  The cases held that an employee is a “supervisor” if he assigns other employees to overall duties, is held accountable for directing subordinates to undertake specific tasks and has the discretion to do so without close direction from management. See Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., 348 NLRB No. 37 (Sept. 29, 2006); Golden Crest Healthcare Center, 348 NLRB No. 39 (Sept. 29, 2006); Croft Metals, Inc., 348 NLRB No. 38 (Sept. 29, 2006).

Democrats have criticized these three cases, arguing that they deny a class of workers the right to unionize, and President-elect Obama has repeatedly expressed his disagreement with them.  The RESPECT Act would overturn this “Kentucky River trilogy” and its progeny by (1) amending the definition of “supervisor” so as not to include employees whose only supervisory duties involve “assigning” or “directing” other employees, and (2) requiring that supervisors spend the majority of the workday in a supervisory capacity.  Even if the RESPECT Act does not pass, Obama-appointed National Labor Relations Board members will likely narrow the definition of “supervisor” through subsequent NLRB decisions.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - Continuing Violations for Discriminatory Pay Decisions

Significant legislative activity is expected in the area of employment discrimination.  With the help of a larger Democratic majority in the Senate, President-elect Obama will likely push for early passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  The bill (H.R. 2831, S. 1843), named for the female plaintiff on the losing end of the controversial Supreme Court decision Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. ___ (May 29, 2007), would amend Title VII to allow claims brought within 180 days of receiving any paycheck affected by a discriminatory pay decision, no matter how far in the past an act of discrimination allegedly occurred.  Previously, the Supreme Court read Title VII’s statute of limitations narrowly, requiring such a suit to be brought within 180 days of the actual discriminatory decision.  This Supreme Court precedent rejected the “continuing violation” approach, which resets the limitations period each time a new paycheck is issued.

President-elect Obama and congressional Democrats favor expanding the statute of limitations by including the continuing violation doctrine in Title VII.  Currently, two approaches have been advanced by Democrats:  (1) writing the continuing violation doctrine into Title VII by allowing claims brought within 180 days of receiving any paycheck affected by a discriminatory pay decision (H.R. 2831, S. 1843), and (2) extending the statute of limitations period, as proposed by Rep. Ruppersberger, D-Md. in H.R. 2660.  The Republican approach-the Title VII Fairness Act (S. 3209)-would delay the start of the filing period until the plaintiff has or can be reasonably expected to have adequate information supporting a reasonable suspicion of discrimination, but would reject including the continuing violation doctrine in Title VII.  Senate Democrats have rejected this approach.

Republican leadership and business groups have opposed the legislation, warning that the proposed revisions would allow plaintiffs to sit on their claims for several years and accumulate massive potential damage awards.  They have also warned that the bill encourages frivolous and vexatious litigation, potentially leading to windfall profits for trial lawyers.

Senate Democrats, including Sen. Obama, failed to achieve the 60 votes necessary for cloture in the Senate on April 23, 2008, falling three votes short.  Although the results of several Senate races are not final, it appears that Democrats have likely captured at least three additional votes in favor of cloture when the bill comes up for a vote in 2009.  Thus, unless one or more moderate Republicans who voted for cloture changes his or her position, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act should pass in the 111th Congress.

The Equal Remedies Act and the Civil Rights Act of 2008 -Expansion of Employer Liability and Employee Remedies

As a senator, President-elect Obama cosponsored the Equal Remedies Act (S. 1928) and the Civil Rights Act of 2008 (S.2554, H.R. 5129), both of which would remove the current $300,000 cap on compensatory damages and punitive damages for violations of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In addition, this legislation would, inter alia, (1) expand disparate impact age discrimination liability by incorporating Title VII’s disparate impact standards into the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, (2) prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements unless there is a post-dispute waiver or consent or the agreement was part of a valid collective bargaining agreement; (3) replace the opt-in collective action procedures with traditional Rule 23 opt-out class procedures for Equal Pay Act claims; (4) authorize compensatory and punitive damages for FLSA retaliation claims; and (5) amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to prohibit denying backpay or other relief to undocumented workers, such as claimants in NLRB unfair labor practice proceedings.  Representing a “wish list” for civil rights advocates and labor organizations, this bill would significantly increase employer liability and damages for a variety of employment practices.

Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007 - Sexual Orientation as a Protected Class

In the campaign, President-elect Obama pledged his support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and proposed legislation that would amend federal employment statutes to make it illegal for an employer to discriminate with respect to an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.  Under the legislation, employers would be liable for discriminatory decisions regarding hiring, firing, compensation and other terms, conditions or privileges of employment.  The bill further prohibits employers from adversely limiting, segregating or classifying employees or applicants because of actual or perceived sexual orientation.  It is expected that any bill passed by the 111th Congress would not prohibit discrimination based on actual or perceived gender identity, an additional protection sought by some supporters of the ENDA.

As introduced in 2007, the legislation exempts religious employers and would only apply to employers with 15 or more employees.  H.R. 3685, absent gender identity protections, passed in the House on November 7, 2007, but was not taken up by the Senate in the current Congress.

The passage of the ENDA would create an additional protected class of employees and expand the universe of potential litigation faced by employers.  In response to the passage of the legislation, employers will need to evaluate existing employment and human resources policies to avoid claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  However, many states and municipalities already forbid employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and companies in those jurisdictions may already be familiar with compliance with sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws.

Fair Pay Act of 2007 - Equal Pay for Equal Worth

President-elect Obama has also promised to pass the Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2019, S. 1087), a bill he cosponsored with Sen. Harkin (D-IA).  The bill seeks to address pay disparities between equivalent jobs segregated by sex, race and national origin.  The legislation sets up an “equal worth” system, rather than an “equal work” system.  Under this system, employers must pay employees in a job dominated by employees of a particular sex, race or national origin at the same wage rate at which the employer pays employees in another job that is dominated by employees of the opposite sex or a different race or national origin where the jobs are “equivalent.”  Employers would still be able to differentiate in wage rates based on seniority systems, merit systems and systems that measure earnings by quantity or quality of production.  Aggrieved employees would have the choice of filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or proceeding directly to federal court.  The bill would permit compensatory and punitive damages against non-government employers and allow plaintiffs to pursue Rule 23 class actions. instead of the present opt-in collective action mechanism used for Equal Pay Act and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) actions.

Protecting America’s Workers Act - Safety Regulation Expansion

President-elect Obama also co-sponsored the Protecting America’s Workers Act (S.1244) (PAWA), which would expand federal occupational safety regulation in four ways.  First, the bill would expand occupational safety standards to include federal, state and local employees.  Second, PAWA would increase whistleblower protections for those who report unsafe workplace conditions.  Third, the bill would increase penalties against employers for repeated and willful violations of the law, including making felony charges available when an employer’s repeated and willful violation of the law leads to a worker’s death or serious injury.  Finally, PAWA would strengthen an employer’s duty to provide safety equipment, such as goggles, gloves, respirators or other personal protective equipment, to their workers.

On his campaign Web site, President-elect Obama expressed a desire for a more activist OSHA that more vigorously prosecutes employer violations.  PAWA dovetails with this goal by giving OSHA a greater scope and authority to levy larger fines.

The Patriot Employer Act - Tax Credits for Voluntary Adoption of Favored Employment Policies

The Patriot Employer Act, a legislative initiative to encourage businesses to increase wages and benefits and adopt a position of neutrality in unionization drives, was a centerpiece of the campaign of President-elect Obama, who co-sponsored the Senate version of the Patriot Employer Act (S. 1945) in August 2007.

The bill provides a one percent tax credit to qualifying “Patriot” employers, encouraging businesses to provide generous benefits to their employees.  To be designated a “Patriot” employer, a business must-

▪           maintain headquarters in the United States

▪           pay 60 percent or more of employee health care premiums

▪           observe a policy of neutrality in union drives

▪           preserve or increase full-time positions in the United States (relative to full-time positions in other countries)

▪           provide the difference in salary and benefits to employees in the National Guard and Reserve, who would otherwise lose pay when called to active duty

▪           provide a specified living wage and retirement benefit to employees.

Unlike the House of Representatives counterpart (H.R. 5907), the version of the bill President-elect Obama supported does not give government contracting preference to qualifying companies.

In its current form, the Patriot Employer Act would only apply to businesses with an average of 50 or more employees per fiscal year.  Compliance with the bill would be voluntary because the available tax credits would encourage, but not compel, employers to participate.  Critics argue that the bill is protectionist and they object to the union neutrality provision, which could strengthen national unions.  They also assert that the bill would both limit participating employers’ ability to operate overseas and increase labor costs.  Additionally, some have raised concerns that the provisions requiring employers to replace the lost salary and benefits of National Guard and Reserve employees could perversely lead employers to terminate and refuse to hire such employees.

President-elect Obama’s past cosponsorship of the Patriot Employer Act is consistent with two key planks of his campaign: (1) his pledge to end tax breaks to companies who send jobs overseas and (2) the New American Jobs Tax Credit, which would provide American businesses with a $3,000 tax credit for each new job created in the United States.  The anti-offshoring provisions of the Patriot Employer Act provide a “carrot” instead of a “stick”; these provisions reward companies who do not send jobs overseas instead of terminating existing tax breaks.  President-elect Obama has, however, repeatedly stated a desire to also provide a “stick” to offshoring-his intention to end tax breaks for companies who send jobs out of the United States.

Arbitration Fairness Act - Elimination of Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements

Although not a cosponsor of the Arbitration Fairness Act (H.R. 3010, S. 1782), President-elect Obama will likely support this dramatic overhaul of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) if it is reintroduced in the 111th Congress.  The Arbitration Fairness Act would amend the FAA to invalidate any pre-dispute arbitration agreement requiring arbitration of an employment, consumer or franchise dispute, or any dispute arising under any statute “intended to protect civil rights or to regulate contracts or transactions between parties of unequal bargaining power.”  The 2007 bill also provides that the “validity or enforceability of an agreement to arbitrate shall be determined by the court, rather than the arbitrator, irrespective of whether the party resisting arbitration challenges the arbitration agreement specifically or in conjunction with other terms of the contract containing such agreement.”

The Arbitration Fairness Act reverses a series of recent Supreme Court cases, including Buckeye Check Cashing Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440 (2006), which held that arbitrators, rather than state courts, determine the validity of arbitration provisions.  As proposed in 2007, the legislation would apply to any dispute arising after the legislation’s enactment, regardless of the date of the pre-dispute arbitration agreement, but would not invalidate arbitration clauses in collective bargaining agreements.

The Arbitration Fairness Act would represent a dramatic challenge to businesses who broadly utilize arbitration agreements, shifting numerous disputes from arbitrators to state courts.  Explicitly intended to address the “power imbalance” between businesses and employees or consumers, the legislation would inhibit employers from enforcing pre-arbitration agreements in contracts with their employees and consumers.  This legislation would channel a flood of disputes, including frivolous complaints, into state court systems.  Rather than arbitrating these disputes-many of which are routine in nature and without merit-companies would have to shoulder the burden of litigating disputes in the courts, tying up valuable time and resources.

Employee Misclassification Prevention Act

President-Elect Obama, with Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), co-sponsored the Employee Misclassification Prevention Act (S. 3648), which would amend the FLSA to increase penalties and enforcement against employers who misclassify employees as independent contractors.  The measure would impose fines of up to $10,000 per violation for employers “repeatedly or willfully” misclassifying workers.  S. 3648 and its House counterpart, H.R. 6111, also provide for double liquidated damages where employers violate FLSA maximum hours or minimum wage requirements in addition to engaging in worker misclassification.

The Employee Misclassification Prevention Act would limit employers’ ability to hire independent contractors and would mandate multiple compliance measures for employers.  Under the measure, employers would be required to keep records of workers’ employment classification and notify those classified as “non-employees” in writing of (1) their classification; (2) the significance of the classification (i.e., that their rights to “wage, hour, and other labor protections” depend on proper classification); and (3) their ability to contact the Department of Labor if they need further information or seek to dispute their classification.

The Employee Misclassification Prevention Act also would step up enforcement against employers by (1) requiring state unemployment insurance agencies to conduct auditing and investigative programs and (2) requiring the Secretary of Labor to ensure that at least 25 percent of Wage and Hour Division audits are focused on potential classification violations.

*   *   *

In our next installment, we will focus on various Democratic legislative initiatives that seek to expand workplace leave policies.

Democrats Introduce Legislation Prohibiting DOL’s So-Called “Secret Rule” (H.R. 6660)

Core Provisions: Rep. Miller (D-CA), along with eleven Democratic co-sponsors, introduced legislation on July 30, 2008 that would prohibit the Secretary of Labor from issuing, administering, or enforcing any rule, regulation, or requirement derived from a proposal submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) entitled “Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks.”

The draft rule reportedly changes the process Department of Labor (DOL) agencies follow when preparing risk assessments related to health standards governing occupational exposure to toxic substances and hazardous chemicals by challenging OSHA’s current assumptions that there is no threshold carcinogen exposure below which the cancer risk is zero, and that permissible exposure levels should be based on exposure to a toxin over a career lasting 45 years.

The proposed bill comes after Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) sought documentation related to the rule’s development after the rule was referenced on the OMB website despite the fact that it was not included in the DOL’s semiannual regulatory agenda. The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register.

Status:  Rep. Miller’s legislation, the “Prohibiting the Department of Labor’s Secret Rule Act of 2008″ (H.R. 6660) has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Democrats in Congress Turn Up the Heat on OSHA

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Over the past few weeks, Democrats in Congress have taken a number of additional steps in their ongoing efforts to pressure OSHA to become more aggressive in its enforcement activities. Some recent data suggests that OSHA is responding to this scrutiny. On April 22, 2008, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (”GAO”) to investigate OSHA’s efforts to ensure that employers accurately report workplace injuries and illnesses. Because OSHA uses this injury and illness information to target employer worksites for inspections, Senators Kennedy and Murray believe that employers have an incentive to underreport the number of injuries and illnesses occurring at their worksites. Senators Kennedy and Murray asked the GAO to review OSHA’s efforts to monitor employers, including the number and types of recordkeeping audits OSHA has conducted.

On April 23, 2008, the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on “Improving Workplace Safety:  Strengthening OSHA Enforcement of Multi-Site Employers.” During her opening statement, Subcommittee Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) emphasized the importance of improving OSHA’s ability to hold large employers accountable for corporate-wide safety and health problems. 

Rep. Woolsey and the Subcommittee called the hearing as part of their increased attention on OSHA’s enforcement activities after a workplace fatality involving a Cintas Corporation employee who fell from a conveyor belt into an industrial dryer last year. Days after the employee’s death, the Subcommittee sent a letter to OSHA asking for a nationwide investigation of Cintas facilities. OSHA’s investigation resulted in a $2.7 million penalty against Cintas, the largest safety-related penalty ever levied against a service sector employer. Cintas has been locked in a long-running corporate campaign with UNITE/HERE, which has made workplace safety one of the centerpieces of its regulatory and public relations attacks against the company. 

Earlier this week, on April 29, 2008, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on “When a Worker is Killed:  Do OSHA Penalties Enhance Workplace Safety?” The hearing focused on the penalties available to OSHA to enforce its regulations, which is one of the issues addressed in the proposed Protecting America’s Workers Act. The Act aims to increase the penalties for violations, enhance protection for whistleblowers, and improve OSHA’s ability to sanction non-compliant businesses. For more details regarding the Protecting America’s Workers Act, please consult a prior Washington Labor & Employment Wire article.

This recent Congressional pressure on OSHA seems to have precipitated more vigorous enforcement efforts against employers. For example, OSHA cited 88,846 violations in 2007, a 5.88% increase from 2006 (83,913 violations). Even more telling is that 67,176 of these violations were classified as serious violations, a 9.52% increase from 2006 (61,337 violations).  OSHA also made more use of its Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP) in 2007. Cases designated for EEP are typically subject to more vigorous inspections and more expansive settlement obligations. During the first four years of the program (2003-2007), OSHA identified an average of 524 inspections per year that qualified as EEP cases. In 2007, that number jumped almost 40%, as OSHA designated 719 cases for EEP treatment.