Republicans are having limited success turning the public against the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan by claiming the proposal is too wide-ranging. A new NPR poll shows solid support not only for the provisions relating to roads and bridges but also for spending on modernizing the electric grid, achieving universal broadband coverage and even expanding long-term healthcare.
Given the sweeping scope of the proposal, it is not possible for pollsters to ask about every component. I suspect there would also be high numbers for a portion of the plan that has received little attention. That is the provision that would strengthen the capacity of federal departments responsible for enforcing workplace protections.
Biden is proposing that $10 billion be spent to beef up agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Wage and Hour Division. The plan states: “President Biden is calling on Congress to provide the federal government with the tools it needs to ensure employers are providing workers with good jobs – including jobs with fair and equal pay, safe and healthy workplaces, and workplaces free from racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination and harassment.”
It makes sense to push for improvements in job quality at the same time the country is striving to bring the quantity of jobs back to the levels seen before the arrival of Covid-19. Workplace abuses predated the pandemic, in some ways got worse during the past year—especially with regard to job safety in industries such as meatpacking—and will be with us long after the health crisis abates.
Congress has perennially failed to fund these agencies adequately, leaving them with insufficient numbers of inspectors and investigators. For example, the most recent edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report notes that the number of workplace safety inspectors declined steadily during the Trump years both at the federal and state levels. These staffing shortages create a form of de factor deregulation as many workplace abuses go undetected and unprosecuted.
Biden’s plan also briefly addresses another problem with workplace enforcement: artificially low penalty structures, especially at OSHA. The Administration calls for increasing these penalties but does not provide specifics.
The penalty situation at OSHA is not as bad as it used to be. Changes made during the Obama Administration, including 2015 legislation that extended inflation adjustments to workplace safety fines, helped raise penalty rates. The maximum for a serious violation is now $13,653 and the maximum for a willful or repeated violation is $136,532.
These maximum amounts do not tell the full story. As Death on the Job points out, the average penalty for a serious violation in fiscal year 2019 was only $3,717. The average for willful violations was $59,373 and for repeat violations it was $14,109. Even in cases involving fatalities, the median penalty was just $9,282.
The cumulative effect of low OSHA penalties can be seen in the data in Violation Tracker, which only includes fines of $5,000 or more. OSHA accounts for 37 percent of the cases in the database but less than 1 percent of the total penalty dollars. Numbers such as these cause too many employers to conclude that their bottom line is best served by skimping on workplace safety and paying the meager fines that may or may not be imposed by OSHA.
The Biden infrastructure plan could begin to change that.