Who’s Against Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces?

Who could be against fair pair and safe workplaces? Well, it turns out Republican senators—with President Trump’s blessing—just voted to side with corporations that steal workers’ wages and cut corners on workplace safety. On Monday, these senators voted to block the Obama administration’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces final rule—to the detriment of workers, taxpayers and law-abiding employers.

In doing so, Congressional Republicans took a sledgehammer and destroyed a common-sense rule requiring businesses to disclose any labor violations when applying for federal contracts worth more than $500,000.

The rule was necessary and important because many companies with significant violations of worker protection laws—major safety violations, wage theft violations, and discrimination violations—continue to be awarded federal contracts. In fact, a 2013 Senate report found that almost 30 percent of companies facing the greatest penalties for labor law violations nonetheless continued to receive federal contracts.

Furthermore, a report issued on Monday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) showed that 66 of the federal government’s 100 largest contractors have been caught breaking federal wage and hour laws, and more than a third of the 100 largest penalties levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 2015 were issued to companies that held federal contracts.

Why should our tax dollars reward corporations that short-change workers on their paychecks or cut corners and jeopardize workers’ health and safety?

A few years ago, when I was working as a senior official at OSHA, there was an explosion in a shipyard that killed two workers and very seriously injured four more. OSHA found that the company had violated the most basic safety precautions and put their workers’ lives in grave danger. The company was charged more than $1 million in fines and citations. Unbelievably, even after this horrific incident—and for years afterwards—the company continued to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts.

Don’t you think it would’ve been important for the Navy to know that taxpayer dollars were being given to a company that cut corners on safety and jeopardized workers’ lives? Wouldn’t it have been better for the workers, their families, and the business itself if the company, as part of the federal contracting process, had been encouraged to come into compliance with basic safety standards?

Such disclosure requirements are nothing new to federal contracting: businesses have to disclose all sorts of financial and tax irregularities if they want federal tax dollars; this simply would’ve added labor violations to the list. In fact, many large corporations, including defense contractors, actually require this type of disclosure from their subcontractors; they require companies to submit their OSHA violations and other information.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republicans decided that they don’t care if companies receiving taxpayer dollars are violating the law. They don’t care if these companies fail to pay workers the wages or overtime pay owed to them. They don’t care if these companies cut corners on workplace safety or engage in sexual harassment and discrimination.

The lobbyists who represent industry and corporate interests sought to mischaracterize the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule as a “blacklist.” In fact, the goal of the rule was to bring pervasive violators of federal worker protection laws into compliance so they can be deemed responsible, not to shut them out. That’s why the rule laid out a clear process for egregious violators to work with the government to come into compliance. But Congressional Republicans weren’t interested in making sure that companies prevent future violations; and they sure weren’t interested in protecting workers.

What is clear from this vote is that Congressional Republicans and the president have failed to demonstrate any real commitment to improving the lives of America’s workers. They can talk all they want about how they’re all for the American worker. But talk is cheap—it’s their actions that matter. This latest action once again shows where they stand—and it’s not with the workers.

Debbie Berkowitz is a senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project. She previously served as a chief of staff and senior advisor with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Read the original op-ed in The Hill.

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