Occupational Health News Roundup

At the Center for Public Integrity, Talia Buford and Maryam Jameel investigate federal contractors that receive billions in public funds despite committing wage violations against their workers. In analyzing Department of Labor data on more than 1,100 egregious violators, the reporters found that federal agencies modified or granted contracts totaling $18 billion to 68 contractors with proven wage violations. The Department of Defense contracted with the most wage violators.

Under Obama, labor officials had attempted to address the problem with the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required those bidding for federal contracts to disclose labor violations and come into compliance with the law. Republican members of Congress and President Trump recently did away with the rule.

Buford and Jameel write:

When contractors don’t follow the law, workers like Latoya Williams feel the squeeze.

As a senior customer service representative for a subcontractor to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Williams spends her days helping agents, homeowners and mortgage companies untangle the details of the National Flood Insurance Program. Most calls are routine, but sometimes distraught homeowners need help filing a claim.

“You have to let people know that you care — like, you really care,” said Williams, who lives in Kensington, Maryland, and has worked at Lionel Henderson & Co. for six years. “Someone just lost their whole house underwater, [and] you want me to be on the phone just straight talking about policies? No. I want to know how you’re doing.”

Williams can empathize with the callers: She was homeless for her first two years on the job, paying friends who let her stay with them.

“I understand the struggle,” Williams said. “I understand what it is to lose everything, to not have somewhere to lay your head at night. I put myself [in their place] when they call.”

Williams is paid $14.28 an hour by Lionel Henderson, a subcontractor until recently to Aon National Flood Services Inc., which has a contract with FEMA, worth up to $163.4 million, to administer the flood insurance program. Under prevailing-wage classifications in the Service Contract Act, she should be getting between $16.24 and $18.74 an hour, according to the Communications Workers of America, which filed a complaint with the Labor Department in December seeking back wages for Williams and her colleagues.

To read the entire investigation, visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Bloomberg: Peter Waldman investigates Alabama’s auto job boom, finding the “manufacturing renaissance” comes with deadly costs to workers. The article begins with Regina Elsea, who began working for auto parts supplier Ajin USA in 2016. Less than a year later, 20-year-old Elsea was impaled by machinery as she attempted to clear an obstruction. She and her co-workers had originally called for a repair team, but it didn’t show up quickly enough and workers were eager to make their daily quotas. According to OSHA, Elsea was never given the appropriate lockout gear and training needed to ensure a machine doesn’t start up during repairs. Waldman reports: “Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The newspaper reports that OSHA has delayed the effective date for its new silica exposure standard by three months. The agency said the delay — the rule was supposed to go into effect on June 23 — is needed to conduct more outreach to industry. The silica rule is expected to protect the health of more than 2 million U.S. workers. In criticizing the delay, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said: “The labor movement has fought for decades to win this lifesaving rule, and any further delay is unacceptable. The longer the Trump administration delays, the more workers will suffer and die. This action alone will lead to an additional 160 worker deaths. We will do everything possible to make sure this commonsense rule is not taken away. Workers’ lives are at stake.”

ProPublica: Sean Kevin Campbell investigates New York businesses that continue to receive public subsidies and tax breaks despite violating labor laws. The article reports that 74 companies in just one sector — farming, manufacturing and food distribution — received more than $100 million in state and local subsidies despite their histories of workplace violations. The article begins with the story of 24-year-old Craig Bernier, who bagged grain for Harbor Point Minerals in Utica. After a couple months of employment, Bernier was inside a silo when the animal feed collapsed and he suffocated in the grain. OSHA cited the company with 21 violations, including indifference to worker safety. Despite the incident, Harbor Point Minerals continued to receive state subsidies. Campbell writes: “A review of (New York) law and the practices of state and local economic development agencies found there’s nothing akin to a complete background check on subsidy recipients to determine whether they have a history of violating federal and state laws intended to protect workers, consumers and the environment.”

Baltimore Sun: Michael Dresser reports that Maryland’s General Assembly has approved a bill giving paid sick leave to nearly 700,000 workers in the state, though Gov. Larry Hogan has threatened to veto the measure. The bill would require employers with 15 or more full-time workers to allow employees to earn a minimum of five days of sick leave per year. Dresser reports: “Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House committee that helped craft the bill, noted that lawmakers continue to receive their taxpayer-funded salaries when they are sick. The Prince George’s County Democrat told opponents (of sick leave) that if they’re feeling ill, they shouldn’t come to him asking for favors in scheduling so they can go home early.” At the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sandra Chereb reports that this past week, a state Senate panel approved a paid sick leave bill aimed at employers with 50 or more workers.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.