The State of the Union address as we know it today shares its centennial with the Labor Department. When President Woodrow Wilson informed Congress that he would be delivering his Dec. 2, 1913, address personally to legislators, it shocked the political establishment. Every president since John Adams in 1801 had simply sent it to Congress in writing. In the decades after Wilson's shake-up, the affair began to accumulate its familiar rituals: beaming guests of the First Lady in the balcony, the ballet of applause and ovations, and the opposition party response. One feature that holds fascination for many is the selection of a "designated survivor." Each year, one member of the presidential line of succession is chosen to remain some distance from Capitol Hill, in the unthinkable event that some disaster strikes the chamber. The practice is said to
have begun in the 1960s, but the individual selected was not made public until 1984. Since then, no labor secretary has served in that morbid role. For eight of those 30 years, one labor secretary was actually ineligible for the presidency: Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. This week, President Obama's address carried faint echoes of the State of the Union speech 100 years ago, when Wilson declared, "Social justice comes first. Law is the machinery for its realization and is vital only as it expresses and embodies it."
• "In a Room With No Windows or Doors": Observing National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month, Secretary Perez recounts the remarkable courage and resilience of the victims of these terrible crimes.
• The 1970s: Bringing Safety to the Forefront: Carl Fillichio, head of the Office of Public Affairs and chair of the department's centennial, explains why the 1970s was an era when assuring workplace safety took on new urgency, and new standards were developed that impact nearly every employee in the nation.
• Mad Men, Working Women and Fair Pay: There are three things every woman, and man, can do to mind the (pay) gap, writes Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs Director Patricia Shiu: Know your worth, know your rights and take action.
Mine Safety Improvement
In a speech at the West Virginia Coal Association's 41st Annual Mining Symposium in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 30, Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said that mine safety is on a steady path of improvement. Reforms implemented by the Mine Safety and Health Administration have resulted in a reduction in the number of chronic violators and better compliance with mine safety and health standards. Most significantly, the industry achieved the lowest fatality and injury rates in the history of mining in 2011 and again in 2012, a trend that continued through FY 2013. "Of course, the most important measure is how many miners return home at the end of their shift without illness or injury," said Main.
Representatives from the department, other agencies and Mexican consulates in Southern California met in the Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., to train volunteers processing calls from workers to the Employment, Education & Outreach call center. Inquiries included wage and hour violations, discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, and health and safety violations. Calls are confidentially referred to corresponding federal and state law enforcement agencies for processing and handling. During the Jan. 22 workshop, presenters discussed the laws they enforce and services they provide to assist workers.
The Maui County government in Hawaii has adopted a code of conduct for agricultural growers employing workers on county land. The adoption of the code, which requires proper pay and safe working conditions for low-wage field workers, follows several investigations conducted by the Wage and Hour Division in 2013.Investigators found numerous violations among several agricultural employers and farm labor contractors in Maui. Violations included failing to keep records and pay the minimum wage, using unregistered farm labor contractors, failing to provide safe transportation, and not disclosing employment conditions to migrant workers. "We are very grateful to Maui County's Office of Economic Development for introducing a code of conduct that will safeguard workers' rights and promote a culture of compliance," said Terence Trotter, director of the Wage and Hour Division's Honolulu District Office.
Public-sector retirement plans face challenges similar to those encountered by private-sector plans, Phyllis C. Borzi, assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security, told the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems on Jan. 27. Noting a trend away from traditional pensions toward what she called "do-it-yourself plans," in which workers bear the burden of making many investment decisions, Borzi described recent efforts by the Employee Benefits Security Administration to assist workers. Agency efforts include rules to provide more transparency about fee disclosures and lifetime income projections, as well as a proposed regulation to increase adviser accountability and reduce conflicts of interest.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration established an alliance with the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association recently that will focus on sharing information about special emphasis programs and safety and health laws and standards. OSHA and the CRCA will develop training and education programs for roofing contractors regarding hazards in construction and promote understanding of workers' rights. Additionally, the alliance will provide a forum for OSHA staff to speak at events sponsored by the association, including its annual trade show.
Teaming Up in South Florida
A new relationship has been established with the Honduran consulate in Miami to promote education and assistance with workplace rights for Honduran workers in South Florida. The Arrangement Establishing an Understanding was signed on Jan. 22 between the Wage and Hour Division and the consulate. The relationship also will help Honduran nationals understand their responsibilities as employers under the laws enforced by the division, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
Enhancing Retirement Advice
Corporate pension professionals know better than anyone what it means to take responsibility for the assets they manage. And they also understand the importance of reducing conflicts of interest in the retirement advice marketplace. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Judy Mares addressed these matters at a regional meeting of the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries in Los Angeles on Jan. 23. Mares updated the group on efforts to increase accountability and transparency and reduce conflicts among those who are paid to give retirement advice. She spoke from experience, having joined the department following a career managing retirement and other benefit plans for large employers. Reducing conflicts, Mares told the group, should be as much a priority for corporate America as it is for consumers.
Houston Forum on Chemical Safety
Chemical safety and security was on the top of the agenda in Houston on Jan. 23 and 24 as Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, chaired a listening session with community members. The session stemmed from Executive Order 13650, issued in August 2013, following the deadly explosion in West, Texas. Nearly 300 Houston-area residents and advocates participated in person and via teleconference. Many live and work near chemical facilities and shared ideas on improving enforcement and regulation in the chemical industry. The next listening session will be on Feb. 5 in Newark, N.J.
According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of unionization among private-sector employees increased 6.7 percent, while the rate for employed wage and salary workers was unchanged from 2012 at 11.3 percent. In a statement on the report, Secretary Perez said, "Workers' ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining has been a cornerstone of a strong middle class. The decline in union membership over the last few decades has contributed to more working families struggling to get by."
To protect temporary workers in the construction industry, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and MEMCO Inc. in Houston recently signed an alliance. Its purpose is to provide workers with workplace safety training and for collaboration on outreach to temporary employment agencies and businesses with temporary workers in Houston. MEMCO is a customer-oriented staffing and payroll firm that offers services ranging from temporary workers to meet specific job needs to temporary-to-permanent employee management and payroll-related duties.
"Today we reflect on the plight for equal pay still faced by women of all backgrounds, even after 50 years." Women's Bureau Regional Administrator Lucia Bruce shared these words on Jan. 18 at the Asian-American Women Coalition's program in Philadelphia, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. Attendees learned about the bureau's equal pay tools, resources and apps. A collaboration between AAWC, the Women's Bureau, PECO Energy Company and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the program focused on topics including negotiating tips, confronting stereotypes, Asian women pushing through the bamboo ceiling, and working with city government to change and make new rules.
Words, phrases and, yes, too often, acronyms are at the heart of understanding the department's mission. But we want every worker and every family to know more about the department and its work, so to help break through the jargon we created a new education campaign "DOL A-to-Z: Learn about the Labor Department." Starting with the letter A (naturally), we're focusing on apprenticeship, a time-tested way to obtain on-the-job training, classroom learning, and earn national, industry recognized credentials and certificates. These programs not only lead to jobs in traditional trades like electricians, carpenters and plumbers, but are also being used more and more to build talent pipelines in emerging fields like health care and IT.
The department reported that the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial Unemployment Insurance claims was 348,000 for the week ending Jan. 25, an increase of 19,000 from the previous week. The four-week moving average was 333,000, up 750 from the previous week's revised average.
State of the Union Opportunity. Action. Optimism.
For U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, the night of his first State of the Union address was an invigorating one. That's because so much of President Obama's vision of America in 2014 fits squarely within the Labor Department's mission, a vision of "a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us." Before the address, Perez met with two of First Lady Michelle Obama's guests for the evening. One was Misty DeMars, an Oak Park, Ill., mother who saw a critical lifeline cut away when Congress failed to extend emergency unemployment benefits. The other was business leader Andra Rush, founder of the largest Native American-owned business in the country. Her company, Detroit Manufacturing Systems, has more than 700 employees, many of whom received the advanced manufacturing skills she required through American Jobs Centers. Later, when Perez joined his Cabinet colleagues in the House chamber, he heard just how central the department will be to the president's agenda. Key department goals like a raise in the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and helping workers better plan for retirement were featured prominently. The president also called for major new skills training and apprenticeships programs, asking Vice President Biden to lead "one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now." Perez didn't end his night when the president stepped away from the podium. After the speech, he joined a panel of White House advisors to answer questions about the speech. There, Perez said the evening had given him "a sense of unremitting optimism that we can get things done now."
After the Address, Making the Case for a Higher Minimum Wage
Secretary Perez joined President Obama during a visit to a Costco warehouse in Lanham, Md., on Jan. 29, where he heralded the company that treats "their employees well with a good salary, benefits and opportunity for advancement." During the secretary's visit, a number of employees expressed their satisfaction with the company and said they feel that they are paid fairly for a day's work. According to Perez, "It's not just employees, but everyone who's involved in your supply chain should be treated fairly." Costco is known for paying its workers above the minimum wage, and President Obama discussed the need for action. He encouraged Congress to pass the Harkin-Miller proposal, which would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Earlier, he announced that he would issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees $10.10 per hour. "Because if you cook our troops' meals and wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty," the president said. Teressa Allen has worked at Costco for more than 27 years. She started with the company serving hot dogs, and today she is an assistant general manager. Allen's story is just one of many that exemplifies the opportunities for success at Costco. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley also participated in the event.
At the Hardware Store, Where It's Good for Business and Workers
A majority of small business owners say they support an increase in the minimum wage. One supporter is Gina Schaefer, who runs a group of nine Ace Hardware stores in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. She is among those who believe that higher wages lead to employee retention and profitability, while putting more money into the hands of workers who spend it in the local economy. On Jan. 30, Secretary Perez stopped by her 5th Street store located in the Nation's Capital to tour the establishment and speak with employees, nearly all of whom earn well above the minimum wage. "As President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address, America needs a raise," Perez said. "You help American business by putting more money in people's pockets. When people have more money in their pockets, people spend more, and businesses like Ace Hardware are going to thrive." Store employee Christina Amaya stood as an example of what a fair wage can mean for worker retention. "I've worked here for five years because of the pay and benefits," she told Perez. He responded by underlining one of the strongest arguments for a minimum wage increase, saying, "When you're treated fairly in the workplace you stay longer and become a more productive employee. When an employer doesn't have to train a new worker every month it's better for business."
Following President Obama's State of the Union address, the White House hosted a day of virtual engagement on the issues he raised in his speech. Giving it the lighthearted title of "Big Block of Cheese Day" a nod to a 1,400-pound piece of cheese set out for visitors to the White House at the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1837 the day provided citizens across the country an opportunity to ask questions of administration officials and make their voices heard. Perez visited the White House to respond to Twitter users who submitted questions via the hashtag #AsktheWH. He answered questions largely centered around the economic priorities outlined by the president the previous evening, such as the call to raise the minimum wage, extend emergency unemployment benefits for 1.6 million workers, and invest in the skills to build a 21st century workplace. For Perez's portion of the town hall, he was joined by Betsey Stevenson, of the president's Council of Economic Advisors.
Getting Beyond 'Mad Men' With Payoffs for Paid Leave
In his State of the Union address, President Obama noted that a day spent caring for sick children or parents shouldn't result in hardship for workers, saying, "It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode." Recent department activities underscore Secretary Perez's support for more supportive paid leave policies. On Jan. 23, Perez and department officials met with policy experts and business leaders who described their successful implementation of competitive paid leave policies. And on Jan. 29, Nicholas & Company's Peter and Nicole Mouskondis spoke with Perez over lunch about how generous leave policies have contributed to greater productivity and growth at their company.
$6 Million in Grants Available for State Workforce Data Collection
The department has made $6 million available for the fourth round of the Workforce Data Quality Initiative. The initiative, designed to support the development and implementation of longitudinal administrative databases, will integrate workforce data and create linkages to education data. States will incorporate workforce information into longitudinal data systems to expand the scope and depth of data from various programs. The first three rounds of the program were extremely successful and awarded grants to 29 states. States that are awarded the grant are expected to use the database information to conduct research and analysis and improve how they deliver information and services to their workers.
First Labor Affairs Council Meeting Held Under US-Panama Pact
The first Labor Affairs Council meeting under the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement was held in Panama City, Panama, on Jan. 27 and 28. Officials from both countries reaffirmed their commitments under the Labor Chapter of the TPA. Eric Biel, acting associate deputy undersecretary of labor for international labor affairs, was joined by Carlos Romero, deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative, and U.S. Ambassador to Panama Jonathan Farrar at the meeting. The parties discussed possible areas for future cooperation; activities to strengthen institutional capacity and labor law enforcement and compliance; child labor and youth employment; and areas of common interest, such as the use of temporary contracts and processes for union registration. The parties also issued a joint statement after the meetings concluded with a public session that attracted more than 50 participants.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Erica Groshen, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main, and Women's Bureau Acting Director Latifa Lyles spoke to approximately 200 people at the department's Customer Service in Action Town Hall on Jan. 29. The discussion was moderated by Human Resources Center Director Sydney Rose. Groshen, Main and Lyles highlighted examples of how the department continues to prioritize customer service to the public and discussed strategies for creating a more positive experience for the department's customers. Main reflected on the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 and how his agency handled the challenge. "Families first," Main simply stated. Accuracy, courtesy, efficiency and effectiveness are the department's core values for customer service.
Christopher Schaber heads Soligenix, Inc., a Princeton, N.J., biopharmaceutical company that is rapidly growing thanks to an influx of new business. When looking for a Ph.D. scientist to add to his staff, Schaber turned to The Life Sciences Talent Network at BioNJ, a sector-focused initiative funded through a departmental grant and rapid response funds aimed at helping dislocated workers in the pharmaceutical industry. The Network at BioNJ identified and referred a candidate with the right qualifications and background who ultimately was selected by Soligenix. "This is a great, cost-effective tool for a small business to bring in strong talent," Schaber said. The department's National Emergency Grants temporarily expand the service capacity of Workforce Investment Act Dislocated Worker training and employment programs at the state and local levels by providing funding assistance in response to large, unexpected economic events that cause significant job losses. NEGs generally provide resources for the quick re-employment of laid-off workers by offering training to increase occupational skills.
The Department of Labor and the Securities and Exchange Commission on Jan. 27 announced $21 million in settlements with Western Asset Management Company, a subsidiary of Legg Mason Inc. The settlements follows investigations by both agencies that revealed the purchase of prohibited securities resulting in losses to the accounts of nearly 100 employee benefit plans and other investment funds. The settlements also resolve findings that the company engaged in prohibited cross-trading of securities in the accounts of other retirement plans and funds, which caused additional losses. Western Asset has agreed to pay $17.4 million to the affected accounts and an additional $3.6 million in penalties.
Excessive Heat Exposure Cited in Worker's Death at Brooklyn Plant
Cooper Tank & Welding Corp., doing business as Cooper Tank Recycling, has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for eight serious health and safety violations following the July 2013 heat-related death of a 64-year-old worker at the Brooklyn recycling facility. The worker suffered from heat illness and died after working for several hours on a conveyor line, sorting and recycling construction and demolition waste. OSHA's investigation found that the company failed to inform and train workers on the recognition, prevention and treatment of heat-related illnesses and did not provide temperature controls in the work area or implement a work/rest regimen.
After Severe Storms in Arkansas, Additional Help for Recovery Efforts
A $702,741 National Emergency Grant incremental award to continue creating temporary jobs for eligible individuals assisting with the cleanup and recovery after last spring's severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in Arkansas is being awarded to the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services. "Cleanup and recovery efforts continue in Arkansas, and there is a continuing need to employ workers in these temporary jobs until that recovery is complete," said Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Eric M. Seleznow. "This funding will provide assistance to the communities in need that have been impacted by this violent weather." The grant initially was approved last July for up to $1,054,112, with $351,371 released initially. This award brings the total funds awarded for this project to the full approved amount.
Prison Sentence for New Jersey Health Insurance Administrator
A New Jersey health insurance administrator has been sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing nearly a half-million dollars from a trust fund that administered health insurance policies. Catarina Young, former partial owner of Elite Benefits Group, was convicted at trial of stealing $462,341 in funds meant to pay for health insurance and prescription coverage for more than 1,000 workers and their families. Young carried out her fraud by depositing checks and wire transfers into her personal bank account over the course of more than three years. Elite administered insurance plans on behalf of third parties, including the Multi-Skilled Employees & Employer Welfare Trust Fund, an organization consisting of several union employers. The Employee Benefits Security Administration and Office of Inspector General teamed up with the New Jersey Attorney General's Office to investigate and prosecute the case.
Misclassified Workers in Arizona to Receive Back Wages
The Wage and Hour Division in Phoenix has found significant violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, in which workers were misclassified as independent contractors in the Arizona residential construction industry. As a result of investigations of several electrical contractors who perform the majority of residential jobs in Arizona, wage and overtime violations totaling $201,333 are due to 231 workers. Most of the employees are piece-rate workers paid as 1099 independent contractors. Employers found in violation agreed to pay the back wages in full plus $8,755 in liquidated damages. Civil money penalties totaling $29,965 already have been paid by the employers for willful violations of the FLSA.
Workers Were Exposed to Hazards, Inspection Finds
The Roof Authority Inc. of Fort Pierce, Fla., was cited with one willful and one serious safety violation following an August 2013 inspection at a job site in Pompano Beach. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a willful citation for the employer's exposure of workers to a fall hazard while they removed roofing materials without fall protection. The serious violation was cited for exposing workers to a struck-by hazard while working in close proximity to a crane. OSHA conducted its inspection as part of the agency's regional emphasis program for falls in construction. Proposed penalties total $59,290.
The U.S. District Court of Colorado in Denver ordered Superior Roofing Inc. to pay $143,000 in back wages to 343 workers for unpaid minimum wage and overtime. In addition, the court entered an injunction restraining the employer from violating the Fair Labor Standards Act in the future and retaliating against any employee who files a complaint with, or cooperates in an investigation by, the Wage and Hour Division. Furthermore, in a separate proceeding, the Office of Administrative Law Judges entered an order approving the parties' settlement agreement that requires the company to pay $43,000 in back wages and $44,000 in penalties under the H-2B provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Fatal Trench Collapse Results in Five Serious Violations
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Larry Strate Plumbing & Heating after a deadly trench collapse involving a company foreman last October. The worker had been installing sanitary sewer lines at a residential construction site in Lee's Summit, Mo., when an excavated trench collapsed and killed him. Five serious violations were issued to the Holden, Mo.-based company, including failure to provide a safe means or egress from a trench, protect workers in a trench from the trench collapsing, and ensure equipment and soil piles are maintained at least 2 feet from a trench. OSHA trenching and excavation standards mandate that all excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. In the 1980s, the agency implemented a national emphasis program for trenching and excavation.
Federal inspectors with the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 61 citations and orders to the Jerritt Canyon Mill in Elko County in December. During the targeted impact inspection at the gold ore surface operation, inspectors found dozens of violations, including improperly stored mercury containers, blocked access to steps and a catwalk, lack of warning signs for hazardous chemical storage, several unsecured gas cylinders, an improperly grounded cable and insufficient illumination. Twelve other mining operations received impact inspections last month.
21 Violations Found at Cleveland Metal Stamping Facility
J.B. Stamping Inc. was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 21 safety violations found at the Cleveland metal stamping facility during a complaint inspection. OSHA proposed penalties of $63,000 for the violations, which included several instances of failing to have adequate machine guarding to protect workers from amputation and other hazards. OSHA inspectors found multiple mechanical power press, machine guarding and electrical violations at the plant.
A federal judge has ordered the garnishment of an additional $5,002 in liquidated damages from the Bluefield, Va., accounting firm of Raymond A. Froy Jr., CPA, P.C., and its president, Raymond A. Froy Jr., after ruling that the defendants failed to meet the terms of a consent judgment with the department. The consent judgment resolved a lawsuit alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and it required the accounting firm to pay $17,003 in back wages and liquidated damages to six employees.
Workers Unable to Open Exit Doors at Illinois Food Warehouse
Freezer Refrigerated Storage, which operates as Gateway Cold Storage, has been cited for five safety violations after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that workers were unable to open exit doors from the inside of the Valmeyer, Ill., food storage facility. Proposed penalties total $47,160. A willful violation was issued, along with three serious violations for failure to maintain emergency exit routes free of blockage and obstacles; maintain safeguards, and train forklift operators about safe forklift operation rules.
Inspection Finds Repeat Violations at Ohio Auto Finishing Plant
Lapmaster Precision Finishing Services Inc. was issued 11 safety and health violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following a complaint inspection. The inspection found five repeat violations, including failure to provide personal protective equipment and training for workers. OSHA proposed fines of $103,800 for the Dayton, Ohio, plant, which processes steel and metal alloys for automotive finishes. Five repeat violations involved a lack of training on electrical safety, hazard communications and powered industrial vehicles, failure to ensure workers used personal protective equipment for energized electrical work, and failure to label coolant bottles. Similar violations were cited at the facility in 2012.
Oregon Workers Hit by Layoffs to Receive Re-employment Assistance
In response to the layoffs of 285 workers after the closure of two Xerox Commercial Services facilities located in Coos Bay and North Bend, Ore., the department announced a $367,956 National Emergency Grant. The award will assist approximately 142 of these workers by providing the re-employment services they need to find new jobs. Awarded to the Oregon Department of Community College and Workforce Development, the grant will provide assistance to the former Xerox workers in conjunction with the training and supportive services they will receive as a result of their eligibility for Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits.
Violations Found After Deadly Accident at Wisconsin Iron Foundry
Torrance Castings Inc. was cited for 10 safety violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after a furnace worker was fatally injured at the La Crosse, Wis., iron foundry. The 30-year-old worker fell into an electrical inductive furnace he was relining while working alone in a permit-required confined space last July. Four of the violations involved OSHA's permit-required confined space program regulations. A permit-required confined space is one that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit and is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.
Toledo Roofing Workers Repeatedly Exposed to Fall Hazards
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued two willful safety violations to Fry's Roofing and Construction in Toledo, Ohio, after workers were observed on a residential roof without proper fall protection. OSHA proposed penalties of $52,250 as a result of the July 2013 inspection. Since 2008, the company has been cited in five inspections for similar violations. In addition to fall protection violations, the company was cited for failure to ensure employees wore eye protection when operating pneumatic nail guns.