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What Slashing the Labor Department Budget by 21 Percent Would Mean

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The Trump administration’s “budget blueprint” would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor’s budget.

The budget would reduce funding for or eliminate programs that provide job training to low-income workers, unemployed seniors, disadvantaged youth and for state-based job training grants. It eliminates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) training grants as well as the independent Chemical Safety Board. Also targeted for elimination is the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to low-income Americans.

“Cutting these programs is cutting the safety net for the most vulnerable workers, those striving for the middle class,” said Matt Shudtz, executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform. “This budget would eliminate training programs for them, the kind of things people need to move up in the world. It is very anti-worker and anti- the most vulnerable workers.”

Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project (NELP) federal advocacy coordinator, didn’t mince words.

“This budget will mean more illness, injury and death on the job,” she said Thursday, the day the proposed budget was released.

Targeting programs that prevent injury and illness

The White House budget proposal justifies its enormous cuts to the Department of Labor by saying it focuses on the agency’s “highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective.”

The budget would close Job Corps centers that serve “disadvantaged youth,” eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, decrease federal funding for state and local job training grants—shifting more financial responsibility to employers and state and local governments. The budget would also eliminate certain grants to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which helps people with disabilities stay in the job market.

Also slated for elimination are OSHA’s Susan Harwood training grants that have provided more than 2.1 million workers, especially underserved and low-literacy workers in high-hazard industries, with health and safety training since 1978. These trainings are designed to multiply their effects by “training trainers” so that both workers and employers learn how to prevent and respond to workplace hazards. They’ve trained healthcare workers on pandemic hazards, helped construction workers avoid devastating accidents, and workers in food processing and landscaping prevent ergonomic injuries. The program also helps workers for whom English is not their first language obtain essential safety training.

“The cuts to OSHA training grants will hurt workers and small employers,” said David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Training is a proven, and in fact necessary method to prevent worker injuries and illnesses. OSHA’s training grants are very cost effective, reaching large numbers of workers and small employers who would otherwise not be trained in injury and illness prevention.”

“Everyone, labor and management, believes that a workforce educated in safety and health is essential to saving lives and preventing occupational disease. That is the purpose of the Harwood grants,” said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers.

The White House says eliminating these grants will save $11 million, a miniscule fraction of the $639 billion the Trump administration is requesting for the Department of Defense.

“No words to describe how cruel it is”

Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would mean no independent federal agency dedicated to investing devastating industrial accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the West Fertilizer plant explosion, Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California. Those are among the hundreds of cases CSB has investigated over the past 20 years or so.

“Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget. The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” said CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland in a statement.

“The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB’s budget over its entire history. And that calculation is only economic. The human cost of a catastrophic accident would be enormous,” said Wright. “The CSB’s work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs.”

The budget proposal also jeopardizes essential legal support for low-wage workers. While not dedicated to employment issues, the Legal Services Corporation provides vital services to low-wage workers, including on issues related to workers’ compensation and other job benefits.

“Gutting the Legal Services Corporation,” said NELP’s Conti, “there are no words to describe how cruel it is, especially considering grossly underfunded the agency is.”

“The government should be investing in workers, their families, and communities, but instead this budget drastically cuts the programs meant to uplift them,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

The White House calls the budget proposal a “Budget Blueprint to make American Great Again.” On a call with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, “this is the ‘America First’ budget” and said it was written “using the president’s own words” to turn “those policies into numbers.”

“This is not so much a budget as an ideological statement,” said David Golston, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.


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Tyson Foods Fined $263,000 Over Unsafe Working Conditions In Poultry Plant

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Bryce Covert
The government just cracked down on the country’s largest meat and poultry processor for endangering its employees.
It all began with a report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of a finger amputation at a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Texas. OSHA investigators determined the worker’s finger got stuck in an unguarded conveyer belt when he was trying to remove chicken parts that had gotten jammed in it.

But once inspectors got there, they realized the problems at the Tyson plant went far beyond one injured hand. They discovered more than a dozen serious violations, including failing to provide protective equipment, a lack of safety guards on moving machines that left employees exposed to a risk of amputation, letting carbon dioxide levels surpass the permissible limit, and no training for workers about the hazards of peracetic acid, a highly hazardous chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, which can cause burns and respiratory diseases. Workers are also at risk of slipping and falling due to a lack of adequate drainage and exposed to fire hazards from improperly stored compressed gas cylinders.

OSHA announced on Tuesday that it was fining the company $263,498 for two repeated and 15 serious violations, including improper drainage, holes in the floor left without guards, a lack of guards on dangerous machinery, obstructed fire exits, and storing chemicals in a hazardous manner.

CREDIT: Earl Dotter/Oxfam America
In response, Tyson said in a statement, “We never want to see anyone hurt on the job, which is why we’re committed to continual improvement in our workplace safety efforts. We fully cooperated with OSHA’s inspection of our Center plant and intend to meet with OSHA officials in an effort to resolve these claims.”

OSHA’s enforcement actions come as part of the agency’s recent focus on the poultry industry. And it also comes after a number of reports have exposed the gruesome conditions that workers must endure inside these plants.

In a report released in October, Oxfam America found that line processing speeds have increased drastically, with an official upper level of 140 birds per minute but with the possibility of going even higher if supervisors who run the lines decide to speed it up. Workers told Oxfam they process 35 to 45 birds per minute. Meanwhile, they must perform multiple motions on each bird, such as cutting, hacking, hanging, pulling, and twisting, repeatedly and forcefully 20,000 times a day.

The speed and repetitive motions combine to create a number of physical problems, such as pain in fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and backs, as well as swelling, numbness, tingling, twitching, stiffness, and a loss of grip.

Workers also told Oxfam that they were frequently exposed to harsh chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, used to clean up the blood and other drippings from the birds.

The conditions lead to widespread injuries and illnesses. Poultry plant workers experience repetitive strain at 10 times the rate of the overall workforce, carpal tunnel at seven times the overall rate, and musculoskeletal disorders at five times the rate.

CREDIT: Oxfam America

“While the findings from this plant in Texas are disturbing, they’re not surprising,” said Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam’s senior campaign strategist, in a statement. “The repeated and serious violations exposed during this investigation corroborate conditions Oxfam has heard from workers at a half-dozen Tyson plants across the country.”

Oxfam’s findings were backed up in May, when the Government Accountability Office released its own report. It found that poultry and meat workers are at twice the risk of being injured on the job compared to other American workers, and they experience higher illness rates than other manufacturing employees. Many poultry workers report respiratory issues thanks to breathing in chlorine. There is also a high rate of deaths, with 151 poultry workers dying on the job between 2004 and 2013.

Workers must put up with other torturous conditions. A big problem is the lack of breaks to go to the bathroom and eat meals. Because they have to get a supervisor’s permission to leave the line and another employee to cover their spots, workers report often waiting an hour or more to get a break to relieve themselves. To cope, some say they have severely cut back on drinking liquids or even started wearing diapers.

For putting up with these hellish conditions, workers are rewarded very poorly. Average hourly pay is $11 an hour, which comes to between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, qualifying workers with children for food stamps and other government assistance programs. For every consumer dollar spent on a chicken product, a worker will see just two cents.

Tyson now has 15 days to either address the violations and pay the fines or contest them. But OSHA doesn’t have a great track record in getting the full amount it originally fines companies, as they are often able to contest and reduce them to sums that amount to a slap on the wrist. It’s rare to even get an OSHA inspection, as the agency is so under-budgeted and understaffed that a given workplace only sees a federal inspector once every 139 years.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on August 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.


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How the Poultry Industry is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

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Michelle ChenWalk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

“I shouldn’t say it’s work-related. If I say my pain comes from something I did at work, then I will be laid off without pay and three days later get fired. So, when I go to the nurse I tell her that I hurt my hands at home.”

In towns that lack decent job opportunities outside of the poultry industry, these workers face an oppressive workplace culture that undermines not only their health but their dignity. Workers reported “being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

Conditions may soon worsen, the SPLC notes, because the Department of Agriculture is seeking to alter regulations to allow even faster line speeds. That means the already frenzied pace of production–whipping bird carcasses into hermetically sealed flesh pellets in a matter of seconds–might speed up even more under a controversial set of proposed changes to plant inspection protocols.

The planned reforms have been criticized as counterproductive because they transfer control of inspections from federal inspectors to company employees. The revamped inspection process would, according to critics, both give corporations more power to regulate their own henhouse while accelerating the already frighteningly hectic pace of production. Some USDA inspectors have criticized the proposal, warning that with the combination of sped-up lines and company-controlled oversight, these industry-backed efforts to “modernize” the production chain may create more safety risks. So safety standards for both consumers and workers might be further weakened. (Industry representatives dispute the SPLC’s research, insisting that the proposal would not harm safety standards.)

Underlying labor injustices have exacerbated the immediate workplace hazards. The mostly black and Latino workforce, which includes many documented and undocumented immigrants, generally have little recourse against abusive employers. Many saw their pay arbitrarily cut by deductions for housing expenses and other fees. Meanwhile, for female workers, sexual harassment was a commonly reported issue. Harsh immigration enforcement laws, which were recently tightened by state legislation that seeks to further criminalize undocumented Latino workers, has made them even more economically insecure and socially marginalized.

One structural problem making poultry workers especially vulnerable, the researchers argue, is that despite some general occupational safety guidelines for poultry plants, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers,” which constrains workers’ ability to take legal action against unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment.

The report’s author, SPLC advocate Tom Fritzsche, says that while OSHA can enforce general workplace protections, regulatory gaps nonetheless enable the industry to structure its labor system around loophole-ridden standards for food production, which are not focused on worker safety. “This specific [line speed] rule from USDA is not really intended originally as a worker protection standard… The speed that they currently run at is based more on whether the inspectors can see the chickens, rather than how the workers can do the work safely,” he says. As a result of these regulatory lapses, “We’ve kind of ended up in a world where this is the only limit on speeds.”

Until state and federal regulators start prioritizing workers’ labor rights and health needs, the unsafe work environment, Fritzsche adds, “ultimately comes from the fact that the whole industry is just operating in this kind of race to produce as many chickens as they can in as little amount of time as they can. And so it affects every aspect of the worker’s job.”

But all those bitter hardships are stowed far away from the millions of super-clean, ultra-cheap drumsticks that will end up on American dinner tables tonight. Countless consumers will enjoy their meals without any conception of how perfectly the poultry industry masks the true price of its brutal efficiency.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 21, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.


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