Archive for July, 2015

Preventing Death on the Job

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

dupont_laporteThe Occupational Safety & Health Administration recently put DuPont on its list of severe violators and proposed fines totaling $273,000 in connection with last year’s chemical leak at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas that killed four workers. OSHA called the deaths preventable and accused DuPont of having “a failed safety program.”

This was a severe blow to a company that prides itself on having a “world-class” safety system and which thinks so highly of its skills in this area that it provides safety consulting services to other companies. DuPont expressed disappointment at OSHA’s actions.

The gap between (self) image and reality is nothing new at DuPont. The company’s claims to be a safety leader are not recent measures to address the fallout from the deadly accident in Texas. In his 1984 book America’s Third Revolution: Public Interest and the Private Role, former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro called the company’s safety record “extraordinary” and made the preposterous claim that its employees “are safer on the job than at home.”

These statements flew in the face of safety problems at DuPont that extended back at least to the 1920s, when numerous workers were poisoned, some fatally, in connection with the production of tetraethyl lead for gasoline.

During the early 1970s, evidence began to emerge of high levels of bladder cancer among DuPont production workers, especially at the Chambers Works in New Jersey. Since at least the 1930s there had been evidence linking beta-nephthylamine (BNA), a chemical used in dye bases, to cancer. Yet the company went on producing BNA at Chambers until 1955, and after it was dropped DuPont went on making benzidine, another carcinogen, for ten more years.

In the years since Shapiro’s book, the safety problems have continued. In 1987 a New Jersey Superior Court jury found that DuPont officials and company doctors deliberately concealed medical records that showed six veteran maintenance workers had asbestos-related diseases linked to their jobs.  Also in 1987, the company agreed to pay fines totaling $11,100 as part of a settlement of OSHA charges relating to record-keeping at plants in Dallas and Niagara Falls, New York.

In 1995 oil company Conoco, then owned by DuPont, agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle OSHA charges related to an explosion and fire the year before that killed a worker at a refinery in Louisiana.

In 1999 OSHA announced that DuPont would pay $70,000 to settle charges that it failed to record more than 100 injury and illness cases at its plant in Seaford, Delaware.

In 2010 OSHA criticized DuPont for exposing employees to hazardous chemicals at its plant in Belle, West Virginia, where a worker had died after a ruptured hose released a large quantity of phosgene gas. The following year, OSHA cited DuPont for dangerous conditions after a contract welder was killed when sparks set off an explosion in a slurry tank at a plant in Buffalo, New York. In 2012 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board added its criticism of the company in connection with the Buffalo accident.

In short, the accident at La Porte, which had a history of previous violations, is far from an anomaly for DuPont. The only surprising aspect of the story is why OSHA did not come down on the company much harder.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book Why Not Jail?, has posted an article criticizing OSHA for not seeking criminal charges against DuPont. The Corporate Crime Reporter notes that OSHA chief David Michaels, asked about Steinzor’s critique at a recent press conference, dismissed her piece but did not explain why the DuPont case did not merit a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

OSHA has long been reluctant to go the criminal route, relying instead on civil proceedings and ridiculously low financial penalties. In its latest Death on the Job report, the AFL-CIO notes that since the agency was created fewer than 100 criminal enforcement cases have been pursued. During this same period there have been more than 390,000 workplace fatalities.

The agency’s willingness to put a large company like DuPont on the severe violators list, which is dominated by smaller firms, especially in the construction industry, is a step forward. But OSHA will need to do a lot more to address the ongoing tragedy of workplace fatalities and disease.

Toshiba’s Not-Quite-Spotless Track Record

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

toshibaJournalists have traditionally been taught to avoid superlatives and other sweeping statements. Yet the New York Times just made that rookie mistake and ended up publishing an erroneous description of the track record of Toshiba prior to the recently disclosed accounting scandal that has led to the resignation of the top executives of the Japanese electronics giant.

“Toshiba Quickly Loses a Spotless Reputation” was the headline of the print version of the flawed effort by the Times to put the revelations in context. This may be the first case of extensive accounting fraud at the company, but Toshiba’s track record is far from spotless.

For example, like numerous other Japanese manufacturers, Toshiba has been the subject of price-fixing allegations. In 2012 the company paid $21 million to settle a U.S. class action case involving LCD flat panel screens after a jury ruled against the company and awarded $87 million to the plaintiffs. In 2010 Toshiba was fined 17.6 million euros for its role in a case brought by the European Union charging ten producers of memory chips with anti-competitive behavior.

In 1999 Toshiba committed to spend up to $2.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had sold millions of defective laptop computers in the United States. The following year it agreed to pay $33 million to settle claims that it sold substandard equipment to federal agencies.

Going back further, Toshiba was involved in a scandal in 1987 over allegations that one of its subsidiaries violated Western export controls by selling submarine sound-dampening equipment to the Soviet Union. The incident led to resignations of top executives and temporary restrictions on U.S. imports of certain Toshiba products.

The lesson that the Times failed to grasp is that corporate misconduct rarely emerges out of nowhere. In fact, the 300-page report on the accounting scandal prepared by outside lawyers and accountants (the English version of which as of this writing has not been made public) charges that improprieties such as the overstatement of profits had been going on for at least seven years. Given what came to light in the Olympus scandal of a few years back, it is possible that subsequent revelations will show that Toshiba was cooking the books for a much longer period.

One thing that can be said about Japanese corporate scandals is that they usually lead to rapid resignations of top executives. Toshiba is also replacing half the members on its board of directors. Such house cleaning does not always occur at U.S. corporations involved in misconduct cases.

We have examples such as JPMorgan Chase, which has had to pay out billions of dollars to settle a variety of lawsuits and regulatory actions, including a recent one involving manipulation of foreign exchange markets that required the bank to plead guilty to a criminal charge. Throughout this all, Jamie Dimon had remained in place as CEO and, unlike apologetic Japanese executives, has loudly denounced regulators and prosecutors. American business does not believe in shame.

Getting Tough with El Corpo

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

get_out_of_jail_freeAs part of my summer reading I’ve been taking another look at some of the key works of the past on corporate crime to consider their relevance for today.

One of the titles on my list is Russell Mokhiber’s Corporate Crime and Violence, which profiled three dozen of the most egregious cases of environmental, workplace hazard and defective product abuses that had occurred in the years leading up to the publication of the book in 1988. Among the culprits were Dow Chemical (Agent Orange), Occidental Petroleum (Love Canal), Johns Manville (asbestos), General Electric (PCBs) and Ford Motor (exploding Pintos).

Mokhiber, editor of the excellent newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, also reviewed the debates on how to define and how to address corporate misconduct and presented his own “50-Point Law & Order Program to Curb Corporate Crime.”

What strikes me is how little has changed in the past 27 years. Now, as then, we are faced with a seemingly endless series of incidents in which large corporations have caused serious harm to communities, the environment, workers and consumers. BP has had to pay around $20 billion to settle the many charges and claims brought against it in connection with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. An ignition switch defect that General Motors failed to correct has been linked to more than 100 deaths. Safety lapses by coal miner Massey Energy (now part of Alpha Natural Resources) allegedly led to a methane explosion that killed 29 workers.

One difference is that we now also have an epidemic of serious financial crimes by major banks. Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have each had to pay billions to settle allegations relating to the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial, foreclosure abuses and other issues. European banks such as Credit Suisse, HSBC and UBS have paid billions more to U.S. and European regulators to settle issues such as tax evasion, violations of economic sanctions and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

As in 1988, there is little consensus these days on what to do about corporate miscreants. Mokhiber focused on the debate between two camps. On the one side were those who wanted to exempt corporations from criminal charges (because these non-human persons supposedly could not exhibit criminal intent or have a criminal state of mind) and instead use exclusively civil cases to extract more burdensome financial penalties.

On the other side were those, including Mokhiber, who called for applying criminal law more aggressively, arguing, among other things, that the stigma of a criminal conviction would serve as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct.

While the debate was never resolved, a quarter of a century later the remedies proposed by both camps have come to pass. Civil penalties have risen to unprecedented levels. Billion-dollar settlements are now commonplace in cases involving large corporations, and in a few cases such as BP, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, the payouts have reached eleven figures.

At the same time, settlements in which major corporations plead guilty to criminal charges are becoming more common. Responding to public pressure, the Justice Department first extracted such pleas from subsidiaries of foreign banks UBS and Credit Suisse; this year it got Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to do the same in a case involving manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

The sad reality is that the application of penalties that seemed so bold in the 1980s seem to be doing little to chasten big business.

Corporations have adjusted to the big penalties, which in some cases are not as large as they seem because they may be tax deductible. The payments are seen as a cost of doing business, and even at their unprecedented levels, the costs are usually well below the financial benefits the culprit companies enjoyed from the illicit activity.

Being convicted felons has not changed things much for banks such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. There is no sign that this stigma has cost them many customers, and their ability to continue to operate in regulated areas has been assisted by special waivers given to them by agencies such as the SEC.

Like the escaped Mexican drug lord called El Chapo, large corporations – El Corpo, so to speak – have an extraordinary and frustrating ability to neutralize measures designed to punish them for their misdeeds. If we are ever going to get corporate crime under control, we’ll have to get a lot more creative. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 27 years to figure it out.

Same-Industry Marriages

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

mergersSame-sex unions are not the only kind of marriage on the rise. In the business world, same-industry combinations are happening at breakneck speed as large corporations join with their rivals.

The same-industry marriages that will probably affect the largest number of people are those being proposed in the health insurance industry, where Aetna is seeking to buy Humana, and Anthem (formerly known as Wellpoint) is playing the mating game with Cigna, though UnitedHealth may get in on the act. Additional concentration does not bode well for keeping insurance premiums under control.

There’s a lot more going on. This was driven home to me recently while I was updating the parent-subsidiary linkages in the Subsidy Tracker database I oversee in my role as research director of Good Jobs First. I had to make adjustments relating to dozens of recently completed mergers.

Among these are the combination of Heinz and Kraft Foods arranged by Warren Buffett and the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, the union of deep-discount chains Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, and the merger of packaging giants MeadWestvaco and Rock-Tenn into a combined firm called WestRock.

An interesting trend is increasing German control over what remains of the U.S. industrial sector. Siemens recently completed its purchase of the industrial equipment firm Dresser-Rand, and ZF Friedrichshafen acquired TRW Automotive.

Other deals still in the pipeline include Staples’ bid for Office Depot, Expedia’s plan to acquire Orbitz (after gobbling up Travelocity), Monsanto’s offer for Syngenta, and AT&T’s plan to buy Dish Network, which in the meantime is looking to acquire T-Mobile.

Thanks to all this activity, 2015 could set a new record for M&A activity. Along with the economic benefit of consolidation, large companies are taking advantage of the mostly lax regulatory climate. Business apologists complain when the occasional deal — such as the attempted mergers of Sysco and US Foods, and Comcast and Time Warner Cable — is blocked, but the fact is that a large portion of proposed combinations face little opposition. And when regulators do protest, they can often been placated with relatively minor concessions, such as the requirement that Dollar Tree sell off only 330 out of the more than 8,000 outlets in the Family Dollar chain.

These corporate combinations are all about profit. In a country that claims to revere free competition, large corporations tend to move in the opposite direction: they want to control markets. While human marriages, as Justice Kennedy put it, are all about dignity, these business unions are about power and are thus one kind of marriage we should not be celebrating.

Redistributing Work Hours

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

punching inThe Obama Administration’s new overtime proposal is an important and long overdue reform, but those who see it primarily as a way to address stagnant wages are missing the point. If the rule works properly, the main benefit will come in the form of time rather than money.

Noam Scheiber, the new labor reporter for the New York Times, exhibited the misconception in a news analysis arguing that the proposal “falls well short of helping substantially increase middle-class wages.” The piece compounded the problem by quoting Sen. Chuck Schumer calling the step “the middle-class equivalent of raising the minimum wage.”

Enacted in 1938, the overtime provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is designed to discourage employers from compelling workers to work excessive hours. The time-and-a-half provision is meant not as a wage bonus but rather as a penalty for firms that overwork their staffs rather than increasing the headcount.

Under pressure from business interests, Congress wrote language into the FLSA providing an exemption from the overtime provisions for executive, administrative and professional employees. The rationale was that such persons would be paid a salary rather than a hourly wage, and their compensation would be high enough to make some extra hours tolerable.

It was left to the Labor Department to define exactly which employees would be covered by the exemption. It chose to set criteria that referred mainly to job content but also set a compensation level below which overtime had to be paid regardless of the nature of the job.

That latter provision turned out to be essential. It would be all too easy for an employer to give a position superficial managerial or administrative responsibilities with the aim of making it exempt from overtime. The problem was that the wage cutoff was set too low, and revisions tended to be slow in coming. After the cutoff was raised to $155 a week in 1975, it took another 29 years before it was increased again.

In the meantime, employers did everything possible to shrink the portion of the workforce eligible for overtime pay. This was perhaps most common in the retail sector, where workers were given bogus titles such as assistant store manager while most of their responsibilities were not managerial or administrative in nature. Once they were off the overtime clock, it was profitable for the real bosses to work them long hours.

Obama’s proposal, which would raise the cutoff to $970 a week, did not come out of the blue. Groups such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project have been campaigning on the issue for years.

There’s also been a battle going on in the courts. A slew of lawsuits have been brought against major retail companies for misclassifying people as overtime exempt. Earlier this year, for example, a federal judge approved a $30 million settlement of overtime claims brought by so-called managers at Publix Super Markets. Payless Shoesource has agreed to a $2.9 million settlement of similar allegations.

Dollar stores, which are obsessive in their cost-cutting efforts, have been the target of numerous overtime suits brought by purported managers. Dollar General paid $8.3 million to settle one such case.

The employer class is, of course, up in arms over the proposed new standard, making the usual foolish claims about job cuts and loss of freedom. The Washington Post quoted one chief executive as saying: “Everything in this proposed rule is anti-American work ethic and culture.”

That in a sense is true, if one acknowledges that our work culture is now one in which some people are forced to work excessive hours and others, especially in the sprawling retail and restaurant sectors, are kept in involuntary part-time status with unpredictable schedules and not enough hours to piece together a decent living.

A measure of the success of the new overtime rule will be the extent to which it rectifies this lopsided distribution of working hours.