How Much is a Worker Worth?

Recently I read an article that I just can’t get out of my head. Even though the article doesn’t specifically address workplace issues, we may all be confronting this issue in the workplace very soon. It helped me put my finger on what’s really bothering me about the policies of the Bush Administration. It’s not my intent to turn this blog, or even this post, into a political diatribe: I know that many fine people, including many who wholeheartedly support workplace fairness, vote Republican and/or voted for President Bush. But I still can’t ignore this article, called “Bush Weighs Life’s Worth, Cost of Rules.” The article starts as follows:

The Bush White House is pushing federal agencies to slash the dollar value they place on human life, a move that has ignited an ethical debate with administration critics and allies alike.

The rest of the article is focused on how agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency calculate the benefits of rule changes, such as cutting power plant emissions, by assigning a uniform value to each life saved (currently $6.1 million under the EPA standard). The administration is now putting pressure on agencies to change the calculus, claiming that the method is unfair and economically unsound, because it fails to recognize differences in quality of life. Under the current calculation, an elderly person with chronic illness is equal in value to a healthy child with decades to live.

When a Oregon health plan tried to adopt a similar calculation a decade ago to attempt to ration scarce health care resources, the proposal met strong opposition from groups representing the disabled and the elderly, saying it was based on prejudices of able-bodied people, and from religious groups who regarded the proposal as a government intrusion on “the sanctity and dignity of life.” Interestingly enough, at the time the Oregon proposal was released, the White House, occupied at the time by the first President Bush regarded the Oregon plan as a dangerous precedent, and launched an administration effort to block it. However, this new effort has some strong White House allies, including John D. Graham, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, who’s leading the charge. Graham wants agencies to identify what types of people would benefit from regulation and by how much, with the ultimate goal being “some consistency across agencies in how they address analytic issues…It is not desirable to have the same disease, for example Alzheimer’s disease, evaluated differently by the various federal agencies.”

It’s not a huge leap, then, to imagine this analysis being applied to workplace issues. In fact, some of the opponents cited in the article already see the connection.

Indeed, opponents fear that consequences could ripple across the bureaucracy as agencies apply the method to an array of laws intended to protect human health — from toxic-waste cleanup to workplace safety and food labeling.

And the very entities that stand to gain from a relaxation of environmental standards–business and industry–also have much at stake in the workplace.

In fact, given some of the workplace-related initiatives that have taken place during this administration, you have to wonder if it’s already happening. Immediately after President Bush took office, his first major legislative act as president was to repeal OSHA’s new ergonomic standard in March 2001. The President said,

in exchange for uncertain benefits, the ergonomics rule would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented employers with overwhelming compliance challenges.

The health and safety of workers, many of whom have suffered crippling on-the-job injuries due to ergonomic practices known to be unsafe, is considered an “uncertain benefit,” while the cost to employers is a quantifiable number (billions–even though many ergonomic adjustments cost little or nothing to implement).

In December 2002, the president repealed another provision designed to benefit workers–an experimental paid family leave program. (See AP story). It’s not that the program was costing anyone money–it had never been utilized, due to the recent economic decline which has depleted the unemployment trust funds of many states. But the potential that states might be pressured was enough, according to the Department of Labor. Repealing the rule “removes the impetus for individuals, be they members of the public or legislators, to encourage the use of the trust fund specifically for this purpose,” said Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant labor secretary for employment and training. Again, the value of a mother who can’t afford unpaid leave to take care of her sick child when trying to also pay medical bills can’t be very high, if states are now not even allowed to consider potential ways of helping her.

As reported here earlier (see February 3 entry), coming soon are proposed changes to the laws determining who is eligible for overtime pay and to the Family & Medical Leave Act. These proposed changes are expected in late May, so continue to check this site for analysis of the proposed changes and your ability to comment. You can bet (more than you’re already betting in your workplace NCAA pool) that the value of a worker’s life, and the time away from work necessary to maintain balance, sanity and a family life, will again not be valued very highly, at least when compared with the dollars and cents of employers’ payroll costs.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.