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GAO finds hazardous conditions in poultry, meatpacking continue

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The General Accounting Office (GAO) publicly released a report yesterday on workplace health and safety conditions in the poultry industry.  While noting a decline in injury and illness rates from 2004 to 2013, the report highlights the problem of underreporting and inadequate data collection.  The GAO report includes 3 recommendations for Executive Action:

Recommendation: To strengthen DOL’s efforts to ensure employers protect the safety and health of workers at meat and poultry plants, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, working together with the Commissioner of Labor Statistics as appropriate, to develop and implement a cost-effective method for gathering more complete data on musculoskeletal disorders.
Agency Affected: Department of Labor

Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health and the Commissioner of Labor Statistics to study how they could regularly gather data on injury and illness rates among sanitation workers in the meat and poultry industry.

Agency Affected: Department of Labor

Recommendation: To develop a better understanding of meat and poultry sanitation workers’ injuries and illnesses, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conduct a study of the injuries and illnesses these workers experience, including their causes and how they are reported. Given the challenges to gaining access to this population, NIOSH may want to coordinate with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop ways to initiate this study.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

The report follows a recent release from Oxfam America focusing on the poultry industry’s denial of bathroom breaks to workers.

Commentary, News

OSHA actions, OSHA inactions

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The US Department of Labor announced yesterday that information about injuries and illnesses suffered by employees in certain high hazard industries will now be made publicly available, analogizing this to the requirement that restaurant safety grades be posted where the public can see them.  The increased transparency is welcome news for worker safety advocates in North Carolina, who last year criticized NC OSHA for not accurately reporting the number of worker fatalities in North Carolina.  At a Worker Memorial Day observance in Raleigh last month, attendees asked the Department of Labor to increase its commitment to worker safety on the job.  Oxfam America also issued a follow-up report on the poultry industry earlier this week, highlighting the need for OSHA to ensure workers have access to bathroom breaks. Unfortunately, the House budget, released yesterday, calls for the elimination of two OSHA safety compliance positions, which inexplicably have been vacant for more than two years.

 

Commentary

Another tool for local governments to combat wage theft

Our neighbors in the Midwest Money Exchangehad a big victory earlier this year when Cincinnati passed an innovative ordinance aimed at reducing wage theft. Recognizing the devastating impact of this common problem on workers and the local economy, Cincinnati is setting expectations for companies that do business with the city or that receive incentives. These companies must disclose prior labor law violations as part of the bidding process and report to the city any wage or payroll fraud complaints received from employees (including employees of subcontractors) during the performance of the contract. In turn, the city will refer complaints to appropriate agencies and, if an adverse determination is issued, will take steps such as termination of the contract, reduction of the incentives payment, and/or debarment from future contracts.

In 2013, the NC General Assembly clamped down on local governments’ ability to take some of these steps in our state. In its expansion of the public policy known as “preemption,” the state now prohibits cities and counties from placing certain requirements on their contractors. Local governments in North Carolina do have the ability to take some measures to improve worker wellbeing in their communities, as explained in our brief The power of wage policies: how raising public sector wages can promote living incomes and boost the economy  – but legislative action is required to enable North Carolina communities to follow Cincinnati’s lead and put other proactive measures into place to protect workers’ wages.

Commentary

Children continue to work in NC fields

farmworkerAlthough agriculture is one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S., federal and North Carolina law continue to allow the employment of minors in farmwork.  This week, Human Rights Watch issued a follow up to their 2014 report on the dangers to children employed in tobacco.  The new report, Teens of the Tobacco Fields, features interviews conducted with child laborers in North Carolina.  Though some positive changes have taken place since 2014, including a new federal regulation prohibiting pesticide applications by children under 18 and voluntary pledges by the tobacco industry regarding the employment of young children, 16 and 17 year old tobacco workers are excluded from most of the limited protections that do exist for farmworker children.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network’s efforts to pass child labor protections for children in North Carolina stalled in 2013.  However, the federal CARE Act (HR 2764) would remove labor law exemptions that allows children to do wage work on farms at age 12 and perform hazardous work at age 16.  Rep. Cicilline (D-RI) has also introduced legislation to end the use of child labor in tobacco.

Key recommendations from the report can be found here.

Commentary

New report highlights growing misclassification problem

A report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), (In)dependent Contractor Misclassification, lifts up the parade of horribles that goes along with this increasingly common method of cheating workers, taxpayers, and honest business competitors. Author Francoise Carré documents the harm caused by fraudulently claiming employees as contractors includes lost wages and benefits, unpaid payroll taxes and Social Security, and lack of worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance coverage. The effect of worker misclassification on North Carolina was exhaustively researched by McClatchy last fall in their series, Contract to Cheat. According to this new report, worker misclassification is more often found in industries that benefit the most financially from the practice (e.g., industries with high worker’s compensation costs) as well as industries where workers tend to work alone, such as housecleaning or trucking.

Key recommendations include information sharing between state and federal agencies and employer and worker education. However, the report also notes the importance of strong deterrents:

The impact of inspections and audits would be greater if fines for fraud were increased and represented a significant risk for businesses; fines could be calibrated not only to the number of workers affected but to the size of the business that commits the fraud.

Tomorrow, the House Commerce and Job Development Committee is taking up HB 482, the Employee Fair Classification Act. Committee members should look at the recommendations of the EPI report and consider the Contract to Cheat findings as they determine how best to tackle this pervasive problem.