Sacrificing Safety or Creating Jobs?

The fate of an Obama-era piece of legislation designed to improve worker safety appears to be anything but safe.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted by the slimmest of margins—49 to 48—to eliminate the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which was created to “limit the ability of companies with recent safety problems to compete for government contracts unless they agreed to remedies,” as the Washington Post reported this week.

Signed by then-President Barack Obama on July 31, 2014, the executive order required prospective federal contractors bidding on federal deals worth more than $500,000 to disclose their violations of certain workplace protection laws before receiving a contract. The rule also obligated federal agencies to work with noncompliant contractors in an effort to address existing safety-related issues.

The regulation was put on hold, however, by an October 2016 court order determining that it exceeded congressional limits. A measure to abolish it has since made it through the House, and this week’s Senate vote all but assures that will now happen. President Donald Trump is expected to sign off on rolling back the rule—just one of a handful of worker safety regulations the administration is eyeing for elimination.

“This is the opening salvo of the Republicans’ war on workers,” Deborah Berkowitz, senior policy adviser at OSHA, told the Post. “It sends a signal that Congress and the administration is listening to big business and their lobbyists and they are not standing up for the interests of the American workers.”

Meanwhile, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable contend that the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule hampers businesses’ ability to compete for government contracts, which subsequently reduces jobs.

“Any changes in employment laws proposed by the employer community [are] disingenuously described [by Democrats] as an attack on workers,” Randy Johnson, the U.S. Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, told the Post. “The left has never seen a regulation they don’t like, no matter how many jobs it kills.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) doubts that the motives behind wiping out this particular rule have much to do with saving or generating jobs.

“Instead of creating jobs or raising wages, they’re trying to make it easier for companies that get big-time, taxpayer-funded government contracts to steal wages from their employees and injure their workers without admitting responsibility,” she said in a Senate floor speech ahead of Monday’s vote.

As the Post points out, the eradication of the Safe Workplaces rule is likely just the first phase of a Congressional movement to “kill Labor Department regulations.”

The “Volks rule,” for instance, could be next.

Adopted in January, the rule was meant to “give OSHA authority to issue citations and levy fines against companies for failure to record illnesses, injuries and deaths that date back as far as five years,” according to the paper.

U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) has introduced a measure that would do away with the rule, which he has described as an overreach.

“If you are determined to be a bad actor, you’ll be a bad actor,” Byrne told the Post. “I don’t think this is going to encourage noncompliance. I think OSHA is being lazy on getting its investigations done.”

For their part, Congressional Democrats maintain that rejecting the rule would undermine OSHA’s efforts to enforce safety reporting requirements.

For example, Rep. Robert C. Scott, of Virginia, says doing so would “create a safe harbor for those employers who deliberately underreport.”

The arguments coming from both sides of the aisle with respect to such workplace-related regulations are nothing new, and are sure to continue. But it seems every bit as certain that we’re going to find out what sort of impact taking these rules away will have on workplace safety.