The “state” of the US workforce depends on who you ask

The new chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor the Workforce will hold the panel’s inaugural hearing on Wed. Jan 26, 2010. The topic: the “State of the American Workforce” with invited testimony from the current Governor of Virginia, president of a conservative think tank, a North Carolina small businessman representing the National Association of Manufacturers, and an economist from a progressive think tank. I’m eager to hear how the witnesses and the Committee members characterize the strengths of and challenges faced by U.S. workers. Will any relay this kind of account?

“Three brothers stopped in at the Workers’ Rights Center in Madison, Wisconsin to ask for assistance in getting paid for work they had done on a roofing job. One was in a leg cast up to his hip. When asked about the injury by the volunteer advocate, the worker explained that he had fallen from the roof while working and had broken his leg. He was then fired by his boss. His two brothers worked for a little longer but soon quit because they were having trouble getting paid.”

It comes from a report released today by the Workers Rights Center in Madison, Wisconsin and their findings from a survey conducted last summer of 304 workers. The state of work for these individuals includes:

  • excessive workloads and unreasonable expectations for how quickly a task can be completed which leads to unsafe practices and dangerous shortcuts;
  • inadequate training to perform key tasks efficiently and safely;
  • unfamiliarity with their rights under OSHA; and
  • unwillingness to raise safety or discrimination complaints even when the worker is confident a law is being broken.

The report notes a not-too-uncommon response from workers who did know about OSHA:

“I won’t call them unless I want to get fired.”

These conditions not only take a toll on workers themselves, but on businesses that abide by safety, wage and environmental laws. Without an effective, adequately-funded enforcement system, the scofflaws triumph. That’s not an acceptable state for the US workforce.