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Businesses brace for mandatory workplace safety rules under Biden

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President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that employers must follow to protect workers from coronavirus exposure. It’s likely to be one of his first big fights with American business and a test of how far he can go to create a national strategy to slow a pandemic that is still raging out of control.

Employers, which until now have been treated to a flurry of optional guidelines by the Trump administration that have been revised and rewritten throughout the coronavirus crisis, are bracing for the new Biden rules.

Biden and his allies believe that a national set of rules for employers could help workers return more quickly to offices and other workplaces since everyone would be following the same emergency standard, rather than a patchwork of state-by-state, county-by-county regulations.

“We cannot successfully restart our economy until workers are safe — and the first step is to require that businesses implement very basic measures to prevent the virus from spreading in the workplace,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama who’s now with the National Employment Law Project. “To stem the growing number of cases, hospitalizations and death from COVID 19, it is critical that OSHA, or the Biden administration, promulgate an emergency temporary standard immediately to mitigate the spread of this disease at work and then back out into the community.”

But Republicans and the business community are likely to come out strong against any such broad mandates.

“If done the wrong way, if it’s implemented as a strict regulatory requirement with little flexibility, I think it will be difficult for many businesses to implement,” Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief policy officer, said during a press call this week. Ultimately, he said, it “will hold back both fighting the coronavirus and restoring the economy.”

The issue threatens to set up a contentious battle in the lame duck session of Congress, when lawmakers debate a new coronavirus relief package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are demanding a robust liability shield for businesses and schools as a condition for a new aid package — a provision that former OSHA officials say would strip Biden of the ability to enforce Covid-19 workplace protections.

As part of his plan to combat the coronavirus, Biden says he will direct his administration to issue the so-called emergency temporary standard, which would lay out specific precautions that employers must take to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The standard isn’t likely to fully take shape until the new administration assumes control of the government, but a former OSHA official predicted it would at least mandate the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines, which broadly suggest allowing for social distancing, frequently disinfecting the workplace and providing protective equipment like gloves, goggles or face masks.

Implementing such a rule is something the new president could do quickly, even without Senate-confirmed leadership at the Labor Department or OSHA, according to two former senior OSHA officials.

Unions and labor advocates have slammed OSHA over its response to the pandemic. While the worker safety watchdog has cited companies for coronavirus-related risks over the past several months, large corporations have received meager fines in cases where their workers fell ill or have even died from the coronavirus. OSHA has also used its special enforcement powers far more leniently than previous administrations.

Unions say that much of the problem lies with the flexibility the watchdog has given to employers and the influence businesses have had over its enforcement efforts.

But flexibility is what businesses want to maintain.

The Chamber’s Bradley said that while he’s confident the Biden administration will listen to businesses’ position, any emergency standard would need to “be flexible enough to recognize” employers’ ability to implement public health safety measures and to “accommodate the differences in how businesses operate.”

“There is a big concern,” said Robyn Boerstling, who oversees human resources policy issues at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Every manufacturing facility is generally different. They make different things, they have different procedures, they have different assembly lines, production processes. So, manufacturers need flexibility in different ways to implement their controls.”

Boerstling says Biden’s plan will leave businesses with little room to weigh in on how the rules affect their specific industry once the emergency standard is in place.

When OSHA determines workers are in “grave danger,” the agency is able to issue emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately. The emergency standard stays in place until a permanent final rule is issued, but the agency will accept public comments on the standard during that period.

“An ETS is very immediate,” Boerstling said. “It’s permanent until it’s not permanent.”

The American Hospital Association, which represents more than 5,000 hospitals and health care providers that would be heavily regulated under any such infectious disease rule, suggested that an emergency infectious disease standard could hinder the health response to the virus.

The organization issued a fact sheet warning its members that an emergency standard would create “a new layer of conflicting and unnecessary regulatory burden at precisely the wrong time,” putting a strain on supplies of protective equipment and limiting hospital capacity.

“Unions have reported filing numerous OSHA complaints against hospitals; such actions could force hospitals to dramatically reduce their inpatient capacity rather than potentially expose themselves to very large fines,” the fact sheet said.

The maximum fine OSHA can issue against an employer is $134,937 per violation, when an employer’s breach of safety rules is considered “willful” or is a repeated violation. For other violations, including “serious” and “other than serious” offenses, the safety agency’s fines max out at $13,494 per infraction.

Such concerns were what prompted McConnell to push for Covid-19 liability protections — including shielding employers from being fined under federal safety laws — warning that “one-size-fits-all” rules would prompt “an epidemic of lawsuits” against employers who can’t comply.

But with both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats facing runoff elections that will determine which party controls the upper chamber, the GOP’s negotiating posture over another aid bill is weaker than when McConnell first made those calls.

While there’s little chance Democrats would be willing to limit their incoming president’s ability to police workplace safety in exchange for an aid bill in the lame duck, McConnell seems in no mood to drop his demand for liability protections.

“It should be highly targeted, very similar to what I put on the floor in October and September,” he said of the next aid bill during a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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OSHA is doing virtually nothing to protect workers in the pandemic

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Two reports out this week show how badly the Trump administration is failing workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report looks at 9,051 complaints workers have sent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration expressing concern about safety on the job during the pandemic. OSHA has investigated just 198 of them, and 85 of 1,215 referrals. More than 2,000 of the complaints were from healthcare workers. More than 1,000 were from retail workers.

The National Employment Law Project, meanwhile, looked at workers’ retaliation complaints related to COVID-19 whistleblowing. Of 1,744 complaints, NELP “found that only 348 complaints—just one in five—were docketed for investigation; and only 35 complaints—just two percent—were resolved in that period. Most of the complaints—54 percent—were dismissed or closed without investigation.”

OSHA is failing workers—just as Trump wants.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on October 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Report: OSHA Investigated, Resolved Only 2% of COVID Retaliation Complaints

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Washington, DCBrand-new analysis by Deborah Berkowitz and Shayla Thompson of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) shows that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to protect COVID safety whistleblowers who filed retaliation complaints.

NELP analyzed OSHA’s public data showing 1,744 COVID-19-related retaliation complaints filed by workers from April through August 9, and found:

  • One in five complaints (348) were docketed for investigation.
  • Only 2% of complaints (35) were resolved during that period.
  • Most complaints, 54%, were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Resolving a mere two percent of OSHA retaliation complaints in six months is a dismal record under any circumstances. It undermines workers’ confidence that they’ll be protected when reporting unsafe working conditions. But it is especially egregious during a pandemic that, to date, has resulted in more than 210,000 COVID-related deaths and over 7.4 million cases in the United States—many likely due to workplace-related coronavirus transmissions—the most of any country in the world,” according to the study.

Reporting on the new NELP analysis, The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg writes, “Advocates and former OSHA officials say OSHA’s lack of response to retaliation complaints is just the latest example of OSHA favoring companies over workers the agency is tasked to safeguard. Plus, the stakes are much higher in the middle a pandemic that has made so many workplaces more dangerous.”

To speak with the authors of the NELP analysis, please reach out to [email protected].

This blog originally appeared at the National Employment Law Project on October 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Deborah Berkowitz, NELP’s Worker Safety and Health program director, joined NELP in 2015, following six years serving as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (2009-2015).


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This Amazon Grocery Runner Has Risked Her Job to Fight for Better Safety Measures

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This arti­cle is part of a series on Ama­zon work­ers pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Courte­nay Brown spends her day mak­ing gro­cery runs for oth­ers in a foot­ball-field-sized maze of nar­row aisles and refrig­er­at­ed enclaves. At the Ama­zon Fresh unit in a Newark, New Jer­sey ful­fill­ment cen­ter, she works on the out­bound ship dock, help­ing direct the load­ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv­ery routes. Brown says that after near­ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been “hell.”

“Imag­ine a real­ly intense work­out, like you just got off of the tread­mill, no cool down, no noth­ing,” she describes one espe­cial­ly gru­el­ing day with a resigned laugh. “That’s how my legs felt.”

Ama­zon Fresh employ­ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var­i­ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win­ter clothes to work. The stress and phys­i­cal exhaus­tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with­in their first few days. “You don’t have that many that have last­ed here,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

With the pan­dem­ic keep­ing con­sumers indoors, Ama­zon gro­cery sales have rough­ly tripled in the sec­ond quar­ter over last year. The num­ber of deliv­ery trucks mov­ing in and out of the Newark ful­fill­ment cen­ter has jumped accordingly.

“Every day I come in, it’s just more and more and more and more,” Brown says. “Lit­er­al­ly every day we break the pre­vi­ous day’s record for the total num­ber of routes that went out for the entire day.”

“Once we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show­er and dis­in­fect,” she con­tin­ues. “A lot of us [are] too exhaust­ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol­low­ing day.” Some cowork­ers have end­ed up over­sleep­ing, she adds, and “end up miss­ing the whole day.”

For its part, an Ama­zon spokesper­son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama­zon Fresh are phys­i­cal­ly tax­ing, work­ers can choose less stren­u­ous labor.

“Imag­ine your stan­dard nor­mal super­mar­ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,” she observes. “You’re expect­ed to go through that aisle with oth­er peo­ple stock­ing the shelves, or clean­ing… it’s real­ly, real­ly, real­ly cramped.”

Ama­zon boasts mak­ing 150 oper­a­tional changes dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that include dis­trib­ut­ing mil­lions of masks at work­sites, adding thou­sands of jan­i­to­r­i­al staff, and rede­ploy­ing some per­son­nel to help enforce social dis­tanc­ing rules. While it has imple­ment­ed social-dis­tanc­ing rules, and even pro­vides an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to help keep work­ers sev­er­al feet apart on the ware­house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd­ed: “It’s pret­ty much a show…Where I work on the ship dock, we’re all mashed up together.”

The tense atmos­phere has “def­i­nite­ly changed the rela­tion­ship” among work­ers, she con­tends. Her fel­low employ­ees were friend­lier before, but now “a lot of peo­ple snap at each oth­er a bit more.”

The threat of COVID-19 has only added to the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den. “When the pan­dem­ic first start­ed, I remem­ber a lot of us were watch­ing the news,” Brown reflects. “I was talk­ing to man­agers and try­ing to get them [to lis­ten]. ‘Hey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar­ing.’ And they [were] just [act­ing] like it [was] not that big of a deal. Peo­ple are dying, and it’s not that big of a deal?”

Although Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly enact­ed safe­ty mea­sures, Brown says she and her col­leagues spent “months com­plain­ing” about what they saw as sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions, includ­ing inad­e­quate safe­ty gear and social-dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. An Ama­zon spokesper­son main­tains the com­pa­ny moved to pro­tect its work­ers at the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, and that masks were dis­trib­uted in ear­ly April.

But Brown bris­tles at the com­pa­ny’s claims, say­ing the response was slow and devoid of trans­paren­cy. Work­ers were espe­cial­ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec­tion at their site two weeks after the indi­vid­ual had report­ed­ly tak­en ill.

Even­tu­al­ly, Brown con­nect­ed with oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers through an online peti­tion cir­cu­lat­ed by the advo­ca­cy net­work Unit­ed for Respect. Ear­li­er this year, she began work­ing with the Athena coali­tion to pres­sure Ama­zon to rein­state some work­er pro­tec­tions that were insti­tut­ed ear­li­er on in the pan­dem­ic and then dis­con­tin­ued. The work­ers are demand­ing the restora­tion of “haz­ard pay” for ful­fill­ment-cen­ter work­ers, as well as unlim­it­ed unpaid leave for those who opt to stay home to pro­tect their health. (Over the objec­tions of its work­force, Ama­zon end­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2 hourly “incen­tive” bonus in May.) The coali­tion is also push­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the report­ing of new cas­es, so man­age­ment will “actu­al­ly tell us the truth about the num­bers of peo­ple that are sick.”

In April, Brown par­tic­i­pat­ed in a media con­fer­ence call with Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., to pro­mote an Essen­tial Work­ers Bill of Rights that would beef up health and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, pro­vide child­care sup­port and uni­ver­sal paid leave poli­cies, and pro­tect whistle­blow­ers. More recent­ly, she was fea­tured in a New York Times video about the work­ing con­di­tions at Ama­zon. She claims her pub­lic cam­paign­ing has drawn the ire of management.

“I’m harassed every day, all day,” she says. One safe­ty super­vi­sor in par­tic­u­lar is “just watch­ing” to see if she vio­lates the company’s social-dis­tanc­ing rules.

Brown recalls a recent inci­dent in which she was speak­ing casu­al­ly with some co-work­ers about safe­ty issues when the super­vi­sor inter­vened, shout­ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main­tain­ing their dis­tance, she says, “he [yelled], ‘you’re in a group!’” They answered, “Yeah, but we’re all six feet apart from each oth­er with our masks on.” But she says the man­ag­er nonethe­less threat­ened to write them up and warned they could be terminated.

Ama­zon has stat­ed that it oppos­es retal­i­a­tion against employ­ees who voice their con­cerns about work­ing con­di­tions. But like oth­er Ama­zon orga­niz­ers, Brown believes her treat­ment reflects a broad­er cam­paign aimed at dis­suad­ing employ­ees from organizing.

“What they’ll do is they’ll find an indi­vid­ual, and they’ll kind of make an exam­ple of you. And that scares every­body else,” she says. Her obser­va­tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar­kets Insti­tute report that finds that Ama­zon has used sophis­ti­cat­ed work­place sur­veil­lance tac­tics to intim­i­date and sup­press work­ers who seek to union­ize or chal­lenge the company’s labor practices.

Brown, mean­while, is ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing her work­place. This is not the first time she has faced hos­tile cir­cum­stances, both inside the Ama­zon ware­house and out. For a stretch in 2018, she had to live in a motel with her sis­ter, who also works at Ama­zon, because the two could not secure a rental apart­ment with the wages they were earn­ing deliv­er­ing food for the cor­po­rate behe­moth. “We were lit­er­al­ly starv­ing,” she says. “We weren’t mak­ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from work.”

Ama­zon has denied charges of employ­ee sur­veil­lance, dis­miss­ing the Open Mar­kets Insti­tute as “a peren­ni­al crit­ic that will­ful­ly ignores” the com­pa­ny’s record of cre­at­ing jobs with “indus­try lead­ing wages and ben­e­fits.” The com­pa­ny claims that it does eval­u­ate work­ers’ per­for­mance “over a long peri­od of time,” and pro­vides under-per­form­ing work­ers with “ded­i­cat­ed coach­ing to help them improve.”

Giv­en the dan­gers of speak­ing out, Brown some­times won­ders if she might end up home­less again. But she’s less fear­ful about los­ing her job than she is about the health haz­ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ­er account­able. “It’s real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing,” she says, “but if I don’t do this, then I could poten­tial­ly get sick and die.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent­ly, Draw­ing Blood and Broth­ers of the Gun, (with Mar­wan Hisham). Her art is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. Her ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage from the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, has been nom­i­nat­ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out­stand­ing News Analy­sis: Edi­to­r­i­al and Opinion.


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OSHA Is Failing Essential Workers. Why Not Let Them Sue Their Bosses?

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Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, frontline workers in sectors deemed “essential” have staged hundreds of strikes, sickouts and other job actions to protest unsafe working conditions.

At hospitals, warehouses, meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants, transport and delivery services, and retail and grocery stores, workers have demanded their employers do more to prevent the spread of the virus—including keeping worksites clean and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They have been aided in many cases by unions and new initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee—a joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with ensuring on-the-job safety—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—has received over 26,000 Covid-related complaints at the federal and state level, but to date has issued citations against only four employers, all of them nursing homes.

While the AFL-CIO has called on OSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases as an immediate, enforceable mechanism to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic, the agency has refused, saying there’s a lack of “compelling evidence” that diseases like Covid-19 pose a “grave threat” to workers. Instead, OSHA has put forward non-binding guidelines around coronavirus.

Critics like Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health say OSHA is “missing in action” and that the agency’s lackluster pandemic response is “a national disgrace.”

In a new report released today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)—a network of over 60 scholars advocating public protections around health, safety and the environment—is calling on Congress to significantly strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the legislation that first created OSHA nearly 50 years ago.

Katie Tracy, senior policy analyst at CPR and a coauthor of the report, says OSHA’s poor response to the pandemic “is emblematic of several decades of choices by our national and state leaders that prioritize short-term profits ahead of people.”

“Since 1970, Congress and the White House have hollowed out [OSHA], denying it resources and trimming its authority, leaving it in a weak state,” adds CPR member scholar Rena Steinzor, another report coauthor.

As a result of this hollowing out, the agency now has only one inspector for every 79,262 workers. The report explains that with so few resources, OSHA has the capability to perform only one inspection per worksite every 134 years.

CPR member and report coauthor Michael C. Duff points out that “Black, Latinx and other people of color are disproportionately represented” in some of the most high-risk and low-paid jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. “Our governing institutions have done little to safeguard these workers from the health hazards or economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19,” he says.

The CPR report specifically recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to allow workers to enforce the law themselves by filing lawsuits under a private right of action. Such “citizen suits” are already a feature of many other federal regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Clean Air Act, the report notes.

“Empowering workers with a private right of action is critical to ensuring safer and healthier workplaces because, even with a robust regulatory system, there will always be limits on what OSHA has the resources and political will to do,” the report says. “When the prospect of a private lawsuit is put on the table, the agency may be more motivated, even compelled, to pursue the serious allegations raised by employees.”

The report spells out how a private right of action would work, including provisions for notice of intent to sue, waiting periods, standing, statutes of limitation, discovery, robust remedies, and more. Importantly, it calls for beefed up whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against employees who speak up, as well as an end to arbitration agreements that require workers to forfeit the right to sue their employers.

Further, the report urges lawmakers to expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include public sector workers, farmworkers and gig workers misclassified as independent contractors—all of whom were excluded in the original 1970 legislation.

“Fixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay,” says CPR board member and report coauthor Thomas McGarity.

Tracy tells In These Times that as a nonprofit, CPR doesn’t do political lobbying, but still hopes that “some of our allies off and on the Hill will find this concept worthy of taking up because it would be such an improvement over the status quo.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting to include employer liability protections in any new Covid relief package, warning there will be “a second epidemic…of frivolous coronavirus lawsuits.”

“Rather than fight for business liability immunity,” Tracy says, “we need to be empowering workers to enforce the law when OSHA won’t.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke


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OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid

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During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands dying every day, America relied on a select few essential workers to keep society running, like postal workers, grocery workers and meat packers—all industries that have seen, together, hundreds of Covid-related deaths among workers. Chief among them are nurses, on the front lines of the pandemic, who have put their lives on the line to intubate disease victims and provide lifesaving medical care. Since the pandemic began, over 500 healthcare workers in the United States have died from the virus.

But these workers who we rely on so deeply—dubbed “warriors” by President Donald Trump and “heroes” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—continue to work under hostile management and in dangerous workplaces that make the disease even more contagious and deadly.

That’s according to a dataset and interactive map recently released by Strikewave, a newsletter of original reporting and analysis for the U.S. labor movement. The data show at least 21,510 Covid-related Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints since the start of the pandemic. It’s unknown exactly how many more complaints than usual have been filed, as OSHA complaints are relatively confidential. But it’s clear that they are surging.

Common in the complaints are allegations of managerial neglect, carelessness and abuse.

And while we may like to think that bad management is the exclusive territory of greedy corporations, the complaints show how healthcare workers, some of them working for nominally non-profit hospitals, have been failed by their employers even as they perform dangerous and essential work.

At Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, several OSHA complaints filed at the end of March alleged widespread shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and threats from management.

Carolyn Clemons, a registered nurse working in Genesys Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit and member of Teamsters Local 332, said that in late March, when cases were skyrocketing, nurses who wore masks outside of patient rooms were threatened with disciplinary actions and firings. In hallways and offices, where nurses worked closely together, managers enforced a no-mask policy into April, according to Clemons. Ironically, some of the managers who threatened mask-wearing employees were the same who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There was not good communication,” Clemons said. “We felt a lack of respect for what we do.”

At the height of the pandemic, management kept stockpiles of PPE under lock and key in their offices while telling nurses to wear garbage bags instead, according to Kimberly Cox, a registered nurse and the Chief Steward of Teamsters 332. Even now, she says, much of that equipment remains unused.

Nurses at the hospital have tested positive. According to Cox, however, Genesys has so far refused to either provide on-site tests for nurses or inform employees of the number of positive or assumed cases among staff, despite repeated union requests. Nurses, some of them exhausted by persistent coughs and high fevers, were told to drive to the next hospital over.

There are complaints from hospitals across the Ascension health system.

One, filed on April 28 at Ascension St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, claimed management failed to implement social distancing practices “properly or effectively” and that workers were not informed when they were exposed to patients and coworkers with confirmed cases of Covid-19. At that point there were almost 3,000 Covid-19 cases in Milwaukee and more than 150 deaths.

There have been more than 15 such complaints against the health system, including the ones against Genesys and St. Francis, and there are likely more (detailed information about OSHA complaints is only available for “closed” cases, suggesting there could be several ongoing but confidential complaints). Additionally, Teamsters Local 332 has filed more than 100 grievances with the hospital.

Ascension, which operates as a non-profit out of St. Louis, Missouri, cut its CEO a $13.6 million paycheck in 2017, the last year on record. It also operates a venture capital fund, Ascension Ventures, which manages more than $800 million, and an investment advisory fund, Ascension Investment Management, which is responsible for $38.7 billion in corporate money.

The health system, which has been fined nearly $70 million for various regulatory violations over the past decade, received more than $400 million in federal funding in May. Genesys itself received more than $20 million. The funding, like all federal stimulus so far, comes with no stipulations regarding employee treatment.

Ascension Health did not respond to a request for comment.

These kinds of complaints can be seen across the industry. At publicly-traded HCA Healthcare, one of the wealthiest hospital chains in the country, complaints are, in some cases, nearly identical to those lodged against Ascension: N95 masks locked away by management, a total lack of protective equipment for housekeepers and food service workers, and prohibitions on mask-wearing. One complaint even alleged that nurses were directed to clean their masks with household cleaning wipes, return them to a bag, and then reuse those masks. In total, workers in the HCA network lodged at least 35 complaints, almost twice as many as Ascension received.

HCA paid its CEO more than $26 million in 2019 and has made more than $7 billion over the past two years. The chain received $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, also without stipulation. Weeks later, nurses at HCA claimed the company threatened them with mass firings unless they agreed to wage freezes.

These OSHA complaints are just a few of the thousands filed, all of which show how so-called essential workers have been treated as disposable. There are more than 3 million Covid-19 cases in the United States, but many essential workers are already losing meager hazard pay raises. As of April, at least 135,000 health care practitioners who work in hospitals had lost their jobs, including many nurses.

It’s a racial justice issue as well. In New York City, 75% percent of frontline workers are people of color. And Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist studying Black healthcare workers, found that those workers are more likely to work at hospitals in the same impoverished Black communities that have been devastated by the coronavirus.

Both the pandemic and the protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd carry the same lesson: our brutal status quo has long been untenable for many Americans, particularly the poor and non-white.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nick Vachon is an In These Times editorial intern.


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Protecting America’s Workers Act Introduced. Would Strengthen OSHA and Workers’ Rights

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A new and improved Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Joe Courtney (D-CT). Similar versions of this bill has been introduced every year for over a decade.  The bill number is H.R.1074 and a copy of it can soon be found here. (In the meantime, here is a PDF and a Section-by-Section analysis.)

As with past PAWA bills, this version, which has 27 co-sponsors, extends OSHA coverage to public sector employees in those states where they’re not currently covered (as well as federal employees), strengthens anti-retaliation protections for workers, requires the abatement of hazards during contests by employers and toughens criminal penalties.

In addition, this year’s bill also includes provisions to codify OSHA’s severe injury and electronic injury reporting requirements (including the detailed reporting by large employers recently withdrawn by OSHA). It reverses the revocation of the “Volks Rule” which was repealed by Congress and the President under the Congressional Review Act at the beginning of the Trump administration.

PAWA significantly expands workers’ rights to participate in improving health and safety in their workplaces, and enhances the ability of OSHA to effectively enforce safe working conditions. 

The bill significantly expands workers’ rights to participate in improving health and safety in their workplaces, and enhances the ability of OSHA to effectively enforce safe working conditions.

Courtney introduced the bill on the anniversary of the 2010 Kleen Energy power plant explosion that killed 5 workers in Middletown, Connecticut.  According to Courtney,

Today, on the ninth anniversary of the accident, it’s appropriate that my colleagues and I reintroduce this legislation to make critical, decades-overdue updates to OSHA. Every day, 14 employees go to work and never come home to their families due to fatal on-the-job injuries. The OSHAct made great strides in protecting American workers, but since it was enacted the American workplace has modernized and diversified. The law should keep up with the realities that workers face on the job today. Our bill is focused on updates and compliance, not on petty, punitive measures against employers, and will ensure that today’s workforce is empowered and protected by our nation’s chief worker safety law.

What’s In PAWA?

If passed, PAWA 2019 would:

  • Expand OSHA coverage to millions of state and local government employees in the 24 states where they’re not currently covered and broaden OSHA coverage to include federal employees.   
  • Authorize felony penalties against employers who knowingly commit OSHA violations that result in death or serious bodily injury and extend such penalties to corporate officers and directors. Under the current law, criminal penalties for the willful death of a worker are only misdemeanors. In addition, knowing violations which cause or contribute to the death of a worker would have a maximum fine of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations, or a 10-year prison term, or both.  Death of a worker would not be the only violation that could send an employer to jail. Knowing violations which cause “serious bodily harm” are subject to maximum fine of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations or a 5-year prison term, or both.
  • Codify the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program to provide grant funding for training and education programs for workers and employers. President Trump has attempted to eliminate the program in his last two budgets.
  • Reinstate the “Volks Rule,” making it an employer’s ongoing obligation to maintain accurate records of work-related illness and injuries. This reverses a Congressional Review Act resolution that eliminated OSHA’s authority to issue citations for recordkeeping violations that occurred within the 5 year record retention period and undermined OSHA’s ability to enforce against employers who violate requirements to record workplace injuries and illnesses.
  • Improve whistleblower protections for workers who call attention to unsafe working conditions, including extending the time allowed to file a whistleblower complaint from 30 days to 180 days.   
  • Expand workers’ right to contest citations and penalties. An employee or employee representative may challenge the severity of a citation (e.g. willful, serious, repeated, etc.) and/or the size of the proposed penalty. Currently employees and their representatives are only allowed to contest the length of the abatement period.
  • Clarify that an “authorized employee representative” under the OSHAct does not just refer to an employee of the employer, or a union representative, but rather “an individual or organization designated by one or more employees of the employer.” OSHA had clarified this change by interpretation during the Obama administration, but that interpretation was withdrawn under the Trump administration.
  • Ensure worker safety is protected in a timely manner by mandating that employers correct hazardous conditions while a citation is being contested.  Currently, the employer does not have to correct a violation if the employer challenges the citation, leaving workers in harm’s way.   Currently, OSHA is often forced to significantly reduce or eliminate penalties or downgrade citations in order to secure timely abatement of hazards. Employers would have a right to seek a temporary stay of OSHA’s abatement order through an expedited proceeding before a Review Commission Administrative Law Judge.
  • Improve protections for employees currently covered by other agencies, such as the FAA and employees of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities by enabling OSHA to determine the adequacy of those agencies’ workplace safety and health programs.  Currently the agency only only has to state
  • Update obsolete consensus standards within two years that were incorporated by reference when OSHA was first enacted in 1970.   There are approximately 200 consensus standards that cover general industry and maritime that were initially adopted in the early 1970s and for which lengthy notice and comment rulemaking was not required.
  • Deter high gravity violations by providing authority for increased civil monetary penalties for willful and serious violations that cause death or serious bodily injury.   
  • Require employers to report injury and illness records to OSHA to provide the agency with data to effectively target unsafe workplaces.   This would codify OSHA’s Severe Injury Reporting rule (which now exists as a regulation), as well as the “electronic recordkeeping” regulation that OSHA partially rolled back last week. 
  • Require OSHA to investigate all cases of death and serious injuries that occur within a place of employment.   
  • Establish rights for families of workers who were killed on the job by giving families the right to meet with OSHA investigators, receive copies of citations, and to have an opportunity to make a statement before any settlement negotiations.   
  • Improve protections for workers in state plans by allowing federal OSHA a more expedited procedure to take over enforcement in those states where the plan fails to meet minimum requirements needed to protect workers’ safety and health. GAO would be required to conduct a study to determine whether OSHA oversight of state plans, and state plan funding is adequate.
This article was originally published at Confined Space on February 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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OSHA Announces Rollback of Recordkeeping Requirements

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In its first completed rollback of a previously issued regulation in the Trump administration*, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration today announced its final recordkeeping regulation that eliminates the requirement that certain employers send in to OSHA detailed information about injuries and illnesses that employers already collect.  The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs announced that it had rushed to clear the rule last week. The full 104 page text of the new rule and the preamble can be found here.

The main excuse OSHA uses for the rollback is “to protect worker privacy.” Ignoring the fact that employers were not required to send any confidential information to OSHA in the first place, the agency’s press release argues that

By preventing routine government collection of information that may be quite sensitive, including descriptions of workers’ injuries and body parts affected, OSHA is avoiding the risk that such information might be publicly disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This rule will better protect personally identifiable information or data that could be re-identified with a particular worker by removing the requirement for covered employers to submit their information from Forms 300 and 301.

The new rule does not affect the current requirement that employer send in to OSHA the summary of injuries and illnesses (OSHA Form 300A), although the agency makes clear that they do not intend to release the summary information to the public for at least 4 years because they allege that the data is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act which would normally require public disclosure. OSHA’s reason is that “disclosure of 300A data through FOIA may jeopardize OSHA’s enforcement efforts by enabling employers to identify industry trends and anticipate the inspection of their particular workplaces.” [emphasis added]

This is simply the business community’s attempt to ensure that the public have as little information as possible about injuries and illnesses — and why they happen — in American workplaces.

Regulatory experts have a highly technical term for such explanations: “lame.”

First, an employer’s ability to anticipate an inspection is actually a good thing because it may encourage the employer to fix unsafe conditions. Second, in previous enforcement programs using similar data, OSHA actually warns high risk employers that they are on a focused inspection list, and encourages them to use OSHA’s compliance assistance resources to eliminate unsafe conditions before they are inspected.  In other words, public disclosure of such information is actually a feature of this program, not a bug.

When this regulation was initially issued under the Obama administration, OSHA intended not just to make the information available to interested parties, but to post it on the agency’s website so that potential workers would be able to judge the relative safety of their employers, and employers could use the information to benchmark their safety record against similar employers.

OSHA received 1880 comments on the rollback proposal which was rushed through OSHA and OIRA to ensure its completion before a possibly unfavorable court decision.

Will the Roll-back Regulation Stand Up in Court?

Corks are undoubtedly popping at the Chamber of Commerce this morning, although they wanted OSHA to repeal the entire regulation, including collection of the 300A summary and the language prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses.

Their celebration may be short lived, however. Just as night follows day, lawsuits will follow this announcement.  And statistically, a lawsuit is likely to be successful in this administration. The New York Times today published an article today detailing how the Trump administration has chronically ignored the Administrative Procedure Act which governs agency rulemaking. The article notes that:

An analysis by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law shows that more than 90 percent of court challenges to major Trump deregulatory actions have been successful so far. By the institute’s count, 30 big rules have been challenged, and the courts have found for the litigants 28 times…In a typical administration, the government wins on such challenges around 70 percent of the time, said Richard Revesz, a law professor at N.Y.U. who specializes in environmental law. “This is truly aberrational,” he said.

Information is Power

The reasoning used by OSHA seems similar to the weak reasoning used in the agency’s proposal. (You can read my analysis of the proposal here.)

But in short, what we have here is the business community’s continuing effort to ensure that the public has as little information as possible about workplace injuries and illnesses — and why they happen — in American workplaces.  Information is power. And the more power that the Trump administration and its business supporters can keep from workers and the public, the better.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on January 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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Mugno or not to Mugno: The Senate Must Decide

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As the sun sets on the 115th Congress and the mid-point of this term of the Trump administration, the sun also seems to be setting on any chance of seeing an Assistant Secretary for OSHA in the foreseeable future.

Or maybe not….

You may recall that former FedEx Ground safety director and Chamber of Commerce favorite Scott Mugno was nominated by President Trump in October 2017, has survived a Senate confirmation hearing and has been approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) committee (twice) on party-line votes. But Mugno’s nomination has never come to a final vote on the floor of the Senate.

Politico’s Morning Shift reminded us last week that the nomination of Mugno, as well as the nominations of Cheryl Stanton for the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, William Beach at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Gordon Hartogensis with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation continue to be mired in a fight over the confirmation of two Democratic favorites: Mark Gaston Pearce to be reconfirmed for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board, and Chai Feldblum to be reconfirmed for a seat on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (There are two other DOL nominees out there as well: John Pallasch for assistant secretary for employment and training was cleared by the Senate Committee last week, and Bryan Jarrett for assistant secretary for policy has not yet had a hearing. )

The business community (e.g. Chamber of Commerce and others) and their Republican cohorts in the Senate hate, Hate, HATE the idea of confirming Pearce and Feldblum more than they love the idea of having someone head the other labor agencies. The Chamber opposes Pearce because he “engineered some of the most harmful decisions and regulations in the Board’s history.”  And even though he was only on the Board from 2010 to 2018, he somehow managed to reverse “more than 4,550 years of precedent,” causing King Tut to roll over in his sarcophagus. According to Bloomberg Law, the Republicans fear that Pearce will slow down their efforts to roll back worker protections that were strengthened under Obama. But their real worry is that if Trump is defeated in 2020, Pearce would be the likely candidate to become NLRB Chair — with the downfall of Western Civilization shortly to follow.

Chai Feldblum served as EEOC chair throughout the Obama administration and has been renominated by Trump.  Her main sin is being an “open” lesbian and gay rights activist which is more important than the fact that she is a graduate of Harvard Law, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and is a Georgetown Law School professor.  Utah Senator Mike Lee is particularly incensed with Feldblum’s nomination, calling her a “threat to religious liberty and the institution of marriage.”

Senator Patty Murray, ranking member of the HELP committee reemphasized last week that Democrats would continue to block the Labor Department nominees until the Senate confirms Pearce and Feldblum.

Why did Trump renominate these candidates who threaten the American way of life?

Because the party controlled by the President gets three appointees to these Boards, while the minority party gets two. Traditionally, the parties get to put up their own candidates who are then nominated by the President. In other words, they’re traditionally a package. Technically, the Democrats can’t block the DOL nominees because the Republicans eliminated their ability to require 60 votes, but Democrats can force Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to consider the confirmation of each candidate separately (instead of as a package), which would take up an enormous amount of scarce Senate floor time that McConnell would rather use to confirm Trump’s judges and higher level nominees. If the nominees aren’t confirmed in the next couple of weeks before this session of Congress ends, the entire nomination process starts all over again.

So what will happen? Will the dam break next week? Rumors of high level talks between the Democrats, McConnell and the White House have been flying, but if I had a nickel for every time a deal was reported to be imminent…

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

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With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

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