Occupational Health News Roundup

Just yesterday, the Obama administration announced it would take executive action to protect certain workers against discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Associated Press reports that the president plans to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The order is estimated to protect about 14 million workers who are not currently protected against such discrimination. The administration did not say exactly when the president would sign the executive order.

The Associated Press article cited data from the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which reports that it’s legal in 29 states to fire or refuse employment to a person based on sexual orientation, while 32 states don’t explicitly ban discrimination based on gender identity. While the Senate had passed similar anti-discriminatory workplace legislation last year, the issue was at a standstill in the House. Reporter Chris Johnson with the Washington Blade newspaper in Washington, D.C., quoted Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, describing the move as “a major step forward.” Carey said:

“Now millions of people will have the economic security they need to provide for their families,” Carey said. “Through his actions, the president has demonstrated again his commitment to ending discrimination. We thank all the organizations who have worked so hard to make this piece of history. This decision is good for LGBTQ people, good for our economy and good for America.”

Writer Zack Ford at Think Progress wrote that one of the largest companies that could be affected by the executive order is ExxonMobil, “which last month voted down LGBT employment protections for the 17th time. The company claims to have a 'zero tolerance' policy on the books for mistreatment, but that does not have the same legal force or consistency as the protections shareholders have voted down each year.” Ford also noted that 43 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people and 90 percent of transgender people report experiencing harassment or discrimination at work.

In other news:

The Stranger: Migrant farmworkers in Washington settled with one of the largest berry farms in the state in a case over unpaid wages and unsafe working conditions. The $850,000 legal settlement is reportedly the largest wage and hour settlement for Washington farmworkers in the state’s history.

New York Times: Neil Irwin writes in The Upshot that while the economy may be on the upswing, worker pay isn’t keeping up. Even though private-sector worker pay has gone up 49 cents an hour during the last year, the bump still wasn’t enough to keep up with inflation — that means hourly worker pay actually fell during the last year. Irwin writes: “Pause for just a second to consider that. Five years after the economic recovery began, American workers have gone the last 12 months without any real increase in what they are paid.” Fellow New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña had some better news for workers: Starbucks is going to provide free online college education to thousands of workers.

The Virginian-Pilot: Obstructed exit routes and hazardous storage techniques are among the violations that OSHA inspectors found at a Missoula, Montana, Dollar Tree story. The violations could result in more than $200,000 in fines. Reporter Carolyn Shapiro quoted regional OSHA director Jeff Funke as saying: "This employer's extensive history of ignoring basic safety standards establishes a clear pattern of intentional and complete disregard for employee safety. Employers have an obligation to keep their workers safe, and Dollar Tree keeps failing to do that."

Los Angeles Times: An administrative sticking point may put a kink into plans to raise wages for Los Angeles hotel workers. Reporter Emily Alpert Reyes writes that the sticking point is a local ordinance that comes into effect if the industry being targeted for a wage hike is so large it could affect wages throughout the Los Angeles economy. If that is indeed the case, then local officials may have to commission an economic study on the wage hike’s effects. Reyes writes: “Labor groups and other backers of the plan argue that ramping up wages in big, non-unionized hotels would give a boost to the Los Angeles economy and steer families away from poverty. The Hotel Association of Los Angeles and other key business groups say it would force hotels to slash jobs and services.”

In another Los Angeles Times article, reporter Carolyn Kellogg writes about two worker deaths at Amazon.com fulfillment centers that OSHA is now investigating. The two workers who died were Ronald Smith, 57, who was working sorting items when he was caught by a conveyor belt and dragged; and Jody Rhodes, 52, who was operating a motorized pallet jack when it crashed into shelving. Rhodes died of multiple blunt-force injuries.

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

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