The Multinational Monitor

July/August 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBERS 7 AND 8


Lethargy at Labor

by Jim Sugarman

In response to demands from Congress, labor unions and even less reform-minded industry trade associations, the Department of Labor (DoL) has been taking a more aggressive stance in its efforts to promote worker rights. Awaking after the eight years of Reagan's pro-industry reign, the Labor Department has announced several new projects in the few months since President George Bush's inauguration. These include setting new levels for permissible exposure to toxic chemicals, restructuring the Job Training Partnership Act and issuing final regulations on the notification of plant closings as well as holding hearings on a variety of other regulations.

One of the most controversial achievements of the new DoL has been the creation of new permissible limits on exposure to more than 300 industrial chemicals and substances. Only 24 such standards had been established over the last 18 years. It was not just workers who found this inaction frustrating; industries were forced to solicit private scientific advice on safe levels for chemical exposure. John Pendergrass, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, claims his agency has made a "20-year leap forward in the level of worker protection." In order to set so many standards so quickly, OSHA relied on the suggested levels recently established by the American Conference of Government and Industrial Hygienists (ACGIL). Prior to this, ACGIL had always intended that its levels were meant to be debated in the field and then revised as necessary; they were not supposed to be the sole source on which to set exposure limits. After discussing the issue with DoL, however, ACGIL has decided that it has no objection to this practice, according to ACGIL executive secretary, Bill Kelly.

Others, however, still see problems with this heavy reliance on ACGIL data. Peg Seminario, an associate director at the AFL-CIO, says OSHA is violating the congressionally mandated process for setting exposure limits. ACGIL limits are not enough, she says. They "are not fully protective limits, they are limits that industry can live with." Instead of setting ACGIL standards for 300 chemicals, unions would rather see OSHA focus on setting standards for 50-75 priority chemicals. Union staff say OSHA should use all available information, especially data collected by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Threshold levels for carcinogens established by NIOSH are traditionally lower than those set by the ACGIL. Unions and professional organizations agree, however, that it is encouraging to see action where previously there was none.

Another area of neglect which is now receiving greater attention from DoL is job creation and training for the underclass. The Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA) forced the Department to formulate a comprehensive program to train the truly underprivileged. The DoL's initial program came under fire from Congress and antipoverty groups because the program focused too heavily on the more easily employed. The DoL has responded by restricting access to the program to the "truly disadvantaged," usually meaning drop-outs, illiterates and the chronically unemployed. Others have suggested establishing two separate programs: one for adults and one for the large number of "youth at risk," those with several disadvantages who, without help, will become permanent members of the underclass.

Once again, the private sector has played an unusually strong role in demanding more government action. Industries, starving for qualified workers and worried about the country's widening skills gap, are active members of the JPTA. Robert Ivry, vice- president of a social policy research group which studied the JPTA for the government says DoL has been "very constructive" in its response to the initial criticism. This administration, he claims, has been a "refreshing change" from the Labor Department under Reagan.

DoL has also released the final regulations for the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, more commonly known as the plant-closing law. Companies with more than 100 workers must now give 60 days warning to a recognized worker representative or to each individual worker before closing a plant. They must also give 60 days notice of any planned lay- offs of either more than 50 workers or, for plants employing fewer than 500 people, of 33 percent of the full-time workforce. The Act, however, allows many exemptions. For instance, if a company decides that issuing closing notices would discourage the business or capital that it needs to remain open, notification is not required. Cases where the closing or lay-off is "caused by business circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable at the time the notice would have been required" are also exempt. Gene Casraiff, a lobbyist for the United Auto Workers, anticipates that industries will try to use the exceptions to avoid complying with the intent of the law. "We expect many companies to take full advantage of the loopholes," he said, but "we'll just have to take them to court and see what happens."

Unions had urged DoL to mandate stiffer penalties for infractions of the Act. As it stands, companies which fail to give notice must give back pay plus some medical expenses for the period of violation up to 60 days. They also must pay a civil penalty of $500 for each day of violation. Because these penalties will be enforced by federal courts rather than the Department of Labor, unions worry that it may take as long as two years for employees to receive their back pay. "When a worker finds out Friday that he won't have a job Monday, he's still got bills to pay" says Casraiff. "Back pay two years later is not enough."

Meanwhile, Reagan's deregulatory legacy is still evident in other areas of the department. DoL has responded to demands from the nation's working poor for improved child care by proposing tax credits of up to $1,000 per child for low income families. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole states that "this credit gives parents the flexibility to choose whatever type of child care fits their needs." Children's advocates say that tax credits are an evasion of the issue. "This is an income supplement, not child care" says Helen Blank of the Children's Defense Fund. Advocates have appealed to Congress which is considering a new bill on child care sponsored by 43 representatives. (See sidebar)

It remains to be seen whether DoL's new-found vigor will have real, positive impact on U.S. workers. Hearings on a wide range of regulations are still ahead: the Labor Department will be reconsidering safety standards for underground work, looking into regulating industrial homework and issuing regulatory standards for hazardous wastes at worksites. The Labor Department is also expected to address questions of liability for on-site childcare centers, demands for national health care and demands to find more reliable ways of collecting data on accidents and deaths in the workplace. While unions and public policy analysts say Secretary Dole still has a long way to go in providing safe workplaces, they almost universally agree that there has been an encouraging and significant change compared to the Reagan administration. Now that worker rights advocates do not have to devote all of their energies to fighting deregulation, they can pressure the DoL to bring about further positive gains. The day when the Labor Department takes the initiative to protect U.S. workers without such pressure, however, has still not arrived.

International Parental Leave Policies

  • The United States and South Africa are the only major industrialized nations that do not guarantee some form of job- protected maternity leave.

  • Sixty-seven industrialized nations, excluding the United States, provide monthly or weekly cash benefit to families for every child regardless of income and work status of parents. Single mothers often receive additional assistance.

  • Many European nations also provide maternity grants at the time of childbearing to assist with the cost of supplies and equipment for the new baby.

  • Of 135 countries providing leave, 125 mandate paid leave. All European nations, and 81 percent of nations in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, provide cash benefits during maternity leave. Japan provides 12 weeks for mothers at 60 percent of pay; France provides 16 weeks at full pay, and unpaid leave for up to two years for both mothers and fathers; Germany provides 14 weeks for mothers at full pay, and another 10 to 12 months at a reduced rate.

    Source: A Vision for America's Future: An Agenda for the 1990s, Children's Defense Fund.

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