The employers of millions of Americans who "telecommute" will not be held liable for any federal health and safety violations that occur at home offices, according to testimony prepared for Congress by the Labor Department.
At the same time, the Clinton administration has decided that employers are not exempt from liability for hazardous manufacturing work that employees perform in their homes, such as the manufacturing of electronic components or lead fishing lures or the assembly of fireworks--work-at-home activities that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited in recent years.
The testimony, by drawing a sharp distinction between the extension of workplace laws for white-collar telecommuting and blue-collar home manufacturing, represents the administration's definitive policy statement on an issue that has vexed Labor Department policymakers. Labor officials are trying to balance 65-year-old laws enacted during the height of the New Deal and the rise of industrialization with the needs of a 21st-century work force.
Earlier this month it was revealed that OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, had issued a little-noticed "letter of interpretation" in November that said employers would be responsible for federal health and safety violations that occurred in the homes of employees who work at home.
Labor Secretary Alexis Herman formally withdrew the OSHA letter less than 48 hours after it became public, but her action left questions about OSHA's future actions regarding work at home. The congressional testimony scheduled for yesterday--but delayed because of the snowstorm--was designed to clarify future OSHA enforcement efforts.
An estimated 20 million workers now telecommute, and the number is growing in a society in which both men and women are under increasing pressure to balance work and family life.
"We believe that the OSH [Occupational Health and Safety] Act does not apply to an employee's house or furnishings. OSHA will not hold employers liable for work activities in employees' home offices," Charles N. Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, said in testimony prepared for twice-canceled hearings before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions' subcommittee on employment, safety and training.
Jeffress said that "OSHA does not expect employers to inspect home offices" and that "OSHA does not and will not inspect home offices." He said that position reflects current OSHA rules and he expects the position to be reflected in future rule-making regarding work at home. "The bottom line is, as it has always been, that OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well," Jeffress said.
Jeffress met privately with several members of the subcommittee yesterday afternoon to answer questions about the OSHA policy.
After the meeting with Jeffress, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he was pleased with the Labor Department's position on home work. "I wanted confirmation that the OSHA advisory letter had been withdrawn and I wanted to know exactly what that meant," Enzi said in a statement. Enzi warned, however, that he might seek "affirmative legislation" if OSHA appears to vary from the position it has now taken.
Jeffress emerged from the meeting saying he thought it had "settled the issue" about OSHA's role in work at home.
In an interview yesterday afternoon, Jeffress said he expected the same exemption principle to apply to the agency's proposed ergonomics standards, which are vehemently opposed by the business community. The ergonomics standards would hold employers liable for repetitive-strain injuries such as those resulting from using keyboards. Some business lobbyists said yesterday that the distinction being drawn by OSHA could help them derail the proposed ergonomics rules.
OSHA, in its original letter of interpretation, said that when an employee works at home "the employer is responsible for correcting hazards of which it is aware, or should be aware." The letter did not make a distinction between the kinds of work being performed at home.
Jeffress made it clear that the exemption granted to employers of white-collar workers will not apply to manufacturing work. He said government investigations last year revealed that at least a dozen electronics manufacturers in Silicon Valley had assigned piecework assembly to employees working in their homes, where they commonly used lead solder and acid flux without proper ventilation.
But even in those cases, Jeffress said, "OSHA will only conduct inspections of hazardous home workplaces, such as home manufacturing, when OSHA receives a complaint or a referral."
Earlier this week, the National Association of Manufacturers wrote Jeffress asking for clarification on the work-at-home issue. It said a survey of its members showed that 30 percent of manufacturers have at least some employees who telecommute. The letter said that while the original OSHA letter was pulled, "it seems clear to us that the policy that caused the furor has not changed."
Patrick Cleary, NAM vice president of human resources policies, said yesterday that OSHA's "earlier reversal now seems genuine."
"If indeed that's the case, we would applaud it," Cleary said from his home office in Virginia.
Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, called the Jeffress testimony "a partial victory" for telecommuting advocates. She said, however, that OSHA should make its policy through rule-making and not internal policy changes.
"I think it's only common sense that the federal government stops at the front door of the employee's home," she said.