Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said yesterday he will ask the Clinton administration to reverse a Labor Department position that holds companies responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur in employee home offices.
Wolf joined a chorus of criticism of the policy from Republican legislators and employer advocates.
"There are 19 million people that telecommute," said Wolf, head of the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and an ardent advocate of telecommuting, whose Northern Virginia district is among the most traffic-congested in the nation. "With the high-tech center we're entering, this policy would really hurt telecommuting, which has an impact on giving people a choice over their own lives, congestion and pollution."
If the Labor Department advisory is not rescinded, he said, he will move to kill it legislatively.
The advisory--which has been applauded by some labor organizations as a logical extension of existing law protecting workers--came in the form of a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to an employer that had asked for an interpretation of Labor Department policy. The letter, issued in November, was first reported in yesterday's Washington Post.
Officials at Labor, of which OSHA is a part, were quick to point out yesterday that they weren't propounding any new regulations, only applying existing ones, and didn't plan to take enforcement actions. They admitted, however, that the advisory raises a variety of issues vital to employers.
"The story raised an important debate that we need to have about the workplace of the future," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman. "The rules of the road are not clear for the 21st century workplace. But the federal government has neither the desire nor the resources to search private homes in America."
She went on to say that the Department of Labor looks forward to a "dialogue" with employers to ensure the safety of workers.
Employer representatives are worried about the implications of the interpretation, in which employers would be held liable for home offices that might have unknown safety problems.
"The reaction is certainly one of shock and bafflement," said Deron Zeppelin, director of governmental affairs for the Society of Human Resource Management. "Especially in Washington, D.C., telecommuting is a great benefit."
The Labor Department advisory, in effect, makes employers responsible for making sure an employee has proper furniture, lighting, heating and ventilation systems in place at the home office.
"It's something a lot of us, as telecommuters, were not aware of," said Stan Reid, who is the sole proprietor for Strategic Sciences, a Fairfax-based marketing company. "It's infuriating. My workplace is no one's business but my own."
Reid, who was hiring several people to work for him--from their homes--has put that on hold. "I called them today and told them I wanted to look into this rule before I committed," he said.
Many telecommuters argue that working at home promotes a flexible schedule, more time to spend with their families and less time stuck in traffic snarls. "Unless I can convince my employer that I'm not going to trip on Buzz Lightyear, I might have to drag my rear end out of bed and sit on [Interstate] 395," said Kevin Wick, owner of Cosworth Ltd., a Web-based technology company in Alexandria. He often works, both at home and on-site, for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the District. "Anyone who feels a little shaky about [letting employees telecommute] isn't going to do it."
Herman took pains to downplay the advisory's effect on technology companies, predicting OSHA would perform less than 10 home-based work inspections a year. "And this is typically in reaction to something that has occurred at the work site that involved death or serious injury," she said.
Some companies have already taken action to ensure their employees home-based work places are safe. Acacia Life Insurance Co. in Bethesda held a company-wide training session last year for employees and managers who would work from home, or manage those who do.
"I don't know how literally [Acacia] has to interpret the rule," said Mary Alice Mezenwerth, Acacia's manager of health services. "But here in our area, where we're trying to promote telecommuting, this really has a possibility of putting a damper on it."
John Palafoutas, senior vice president of domestic policy at the American Electronics Association, the nation's largest high-tech trade association, also asked Charles N. Jeffress, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, to rescind the advisory.
"Extending OSHA safety and health standards to home offices is both an incorrect interpretation of the OSH Act and a Big Brother-like overreach," he said in a letter sent to Jeffress. "AEA is also skeptical of the claim that OSHA will not conduct inspections of home offices."
Leaders of Northern Virginia business groups criticized the advisory.
"This ruling by OSHA defies common sense" said James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.
"The technology community faces a growing work-force shortage and OSHA's action will drastically hinder the ability of our industry to provide telecommuting work arrangements tailored to the needs of our employees," said Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.