IT TOOK THE Department of Labor all of 24 hours to figure out something was seriously wrong with its antediluvian take on telecommuting, the popular and quickly spreading practice of allowing employees to do their jobs from home. Even that was slow. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman yesterday announced she was rescinding an advisory letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that had said employers could be found liable if they failed to apply existing workplace health and safety standards--including on ergonomics, air quality, light and heating--to whatever spaces workers use for their jobs while at home.
The secretary called instead for a national dialogue on "rules of the road" for at-home work. But that's a dialogue already perking along nicely, thank you--and not one to which ham-handed analyses such as OSHA's add anything very insightful. In fact, the OSHA letter served only to strengthen those who would keep OSHA from doing those tasks that urgently need doing, such as monitoring conditions of workers in chicken factories and other high-hazard situations.
The OSHA advisory letter produced a huge and entirely proper outcry at the notion of OSHA or employers inspecting home offices--not least from employers who said such obligations would quickly drive them out of telecommuting arrangements. And the flap occasioned a tremendous show of support for telecommuting, an option now used by some 19 million people for reasons ranging from child care responsibilities to traffic snarl. Worker shortages and the rising capabilities of technology should help push along the legal and practical evolution of the workplace. The government should take care to step back and let it happen, not get in its way.