Money bill trims pro-biz program at OSHA, boosts women’s bureau

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The $1.012 trillion money bill funding the government for the year ending Sept. 30, which Congress approved on Jan. 16 before it left town for the Martin Luther King Birthday break, slightly cuts the funding for the controversial pro-business program that lets companies “voluntarily comply” with job safety law by drafting and implementing their own standards in exchange for escaping Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections.

The 1,500-page measure also restores all money the Obama administration wanted to cut from the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, and it gives federal civilian blue-collar workers a 1 percent pay raise, their first in three years.  One published report adds the money bill keeps six-day delivery of mail, but the section of the measure that deals with the Postal Service does not mention that.

The money bill’s positives led AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to call it “a good start that moves in the right direction” on spending priorities.  “But we’ll issue a fuller analysis of it later,” he told a Jan. 14 telephone press conference.

The money bill is a compromise between the Democratic-run Senate and the GOP/Tea Party-run House.  It funds the government through Sept. 30, but the dollar figure is a 12-month figure for fiscal 2014 even though that fiscal year is one-third over.  The measure also ends the “sequester,” the GOP-mandated arbitrary budget cuts.  Besides dollars, the bill includes policy choices of interest to workers.  Some details:

Federal white-collar workers got a 1 percent raise on Jan. 1, but blue-collar workers didn’t.  They needed separate legislation, and that’s in the money bill, AFGE President J. David Cox said.  “Congress clearly recognizes the importance of pay parity for all federal employees, regardless of which pay system they fall into, and this inequity was corrected,” he added.

OSHA gets $552 million, $18 million less than the Obama administration requested.  One third of that difference, $5.9 million, is yanked from “compliance assistance,” including the controversial GOP-pushed program to let firms that construct their own worker safety and health programs get OSHA’s OK, then escape inspections. 

Non-partisan government auditors have slammed the “Voluntary Protection Program” (VPP) of compliance assistance for letting firms join and stay even with questionable job safety records.  VPP is a favorite of congressional Republicans, since the GOP and its business backers hate OSHA enforcement of health and safety rules.

Lawmakers, in their report on the money bill, suggested giving the Labor Department another power to go after OSHA violators, by recording if safety violators break other federal labor laws.  Improving information on that issue “could assist federal contracting officers with accurate data to determine whether or not a prospective contractor has a record of compliance with federal labor law,” the legislators said.

The Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau gets $11.54 million, not the $9.2 million Obama sought.  Obama wanted to kill the bureau’s regional offices and shift the savings to DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces overtime pay and minimum wage laws.  Lawmakers restored the money to the Women’s Bureau.

Obama wanted $243 million for wage and hour enforcement.  Congress gave him $19 million less.  The wage and hour division has as many inspectors as it had in 1970.  Enforcement suffers as a result, despite high-profile cases against violators.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) gets $375.9 million, $5 million less than Obama wanted.  More importantly, the lawmakers told MSHA to shift mine safety inspectors around the country. 

 “Certain areas in which mines have closed may have the same number of inspectors that existed when all mines were operational, while some areas opening new mining operations may not.  MSHA should do a better job in allocating mining inspectors in proportion to actual mining activity,” they said.

Federal firefighter assistance grants, used for training and to keep staffing levels for firefighters up around the country, total $680 million, $5.7 million more than last year.  The grants are a big cause of the Fire Fighters, who point out the training helps firefighters contend with such things as hazardous materials fires and accidents, and that the staffing grants to cities and states help prevent short-staffing.

Congress killed Obama’s experimental $5 million grant program to states to get them to enact paid family leave laws.  The grants help the states administer paid leave.

$8.6 billion for Head Start, restoring all the money the sequester cut, and returning 90,000 children back to Head Start.  Public pressure, an Obama emphasis on the importance of pre-kindergarten education – a cause the AFT has pushed — and lobbying by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that doles out labor and education money, won that restoration.

The money bill backs the Obama administration’s decision not to deport undocumented youth, instead focusing on people who commit felonies.  The House GOP tried to overturn that.  The Democrats reported that GOP move – to resume deportations of the kids – died in the bargaining over the bill.

Photo: Because of Republicans in Congress, OSHA got $18 million less than what the Obama administration wanted. Bob Self /The Florida Times-Union/AP 


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.