The Battle Over Covid Safety on the Job

As the country reaches the sorrowful milestone of 100,000 dead from covid-19, there is much discussion of the unequal distribution of fatalities around the country. Instead of focusing only on which cities lost the most lives, we should also be analyzing what portion of the deaths occurred in the workplace. The latter is part of one of the biggest scandals of the pandemic: the extent to which employers are being allowed to put workers in high-risk situations, with little or no intervention from health and safety regulators.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, we have seen contradictory tendencies when it comes to at-risk workers. There has been an enormous amount of justified praise for front-line nurses, doctors, EMTs and others who have been helping covid patients. The nightly applause and other demonstrations of appreciation are important affirmations of the vital role these workers play.

Their efforts are all the more heroic in that most of these workers readily accepted the risk, seeing it as part of their professional responsibility to help those in need, despite the circumstances.

Potentially fatal workplace risk becomes a trickier matter for other occupations not usually regarded as hazardous. Prior to the pandemic, no one ever took a job in a supermarket expecting to put his or her life on the line. Warehouse and factory jobs have had higher accident rates, but in most cases they were still not viewed as deadly environments.

Now the calculus of workplace safety has become a lot more complicated, and the situation is being exacerbated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s abdication of its watchdog role. OSHA is performing very few covid-related inspections and reportedly has not proposed a single penalty against an employer.

The agency has claimed it plans to increase inspections, and it put out a statement affirming that employers are responsible for recording coronavirus illnesses among its workers. Yet it is unclear whether that data collection will have any enforcement consequences. The agency’s announcement states: “Recording a coronavirus illness does not mean that the employer has violated any OSHA standard. Following existing regulations, employers with 10 or fewer employees and certain employers in low hazard industries have no recording obligations; they need only report work-related coronavirus illnesses that result in a fatality or an employee’s in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.”

Perhaps the most disturbing workplace safety situation involves the country’s meatpacking plants, which have seen some of the worst clusters of covid-19. The Trump Administration, after resisting calls to make full use of the Defense Production Act to address the crisis regarding masks and ventilators, chose to invoke the law to compel meat plants to open even before the outbreaks were brought under control.  

Rarely has a President made it so clear that the he was giving the well-being of workers lower priority than the desire to stimulate economic activity. What made things worse in this case was that the stimulus took the form of increasing the nation’s supply of ground beef and bacon strips.

In the decades following the creation of OSHA, annual workplace deaths sharply declined from around 17 per 100,000 employees to around 4 per 100,000. The Trump Administration’s two-pronged attack on safety threatens to reverse that trend.

There are already signs that people are resisting. We’ve seen increased militancy over safety at places such as Amazon.com distribution centers, and we’ve seen the filing of a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s. Widespread work stoppages are possible. One way or another, workers will defend their right to safety on the job.

Corporate America Wants Its Own Immunity Passport

It is unclear at the moment whether Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans are backing off their demand that corporations be given protection from covid-19 lawsuits — or if they are maneuvering behind the scenes in favor of the proposal.

What I find amazing is that business lobbyists and their GOP supporters think they can sell the country on the idea, which would be a brazen giveaway to corporate interests.

There are numerous compelling arguments against immunity, but I want to focus on one: the track records of corporations themselves. Proponents of a liability shield imply that large companies normally act in good faith and that any coronavirus-related litigation would be penalizing them for conditions outside their control. These lawsuits, they suggest, would be frivolous or unfair.

This depiction of large companies as innocent victims of unscrupulous trial lawyers is a long-standing fiction that business lobbyists have used in promoting “tort reform,” the polite term for the effort to limit the ability of victims of corporate misconduct to seek redress through the civil justice system. That campaign has not been more successful because most people realize that corporate negligence is a real thing.

In fact, some of the industries that are pushing the hardest for immunity are ones that have terrible records when it comes to regulatory compliance. Take nursing homes, which have already received a form of covid immunity from New York State.

That business includes the likes of Kindred Healthcare, which has had to pay out more than $350 million in fines and settlements.  The bulk of that amount has come from cases in which Kindred and its subsidiaries were accused of violating the False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate or improper bills to Medicare and Medicaid. Another $40 million has come from wage and hour fines and settlements.

Kindred has also been fined more than $4 million for deficiencies in its operations. This includes more than $3 million it paid to settle a case brought by the Kentucky Attorney General over issues such as “untreated or delayed treatment of infections leading to sepsis.”

Or consider the meatpacking industry, which has experienced severe outbreaks yet is keeping many facilities open. This sector includes companies such as WH Group, the Chinese firm that has acquired well-known businesses such as Smithfield. WH Group’s operations have paid a total of $137 million in penalties from large environmental settlements as well as dozens of workplace safety violations.

Similar examples can be found throughout the economy. Every large corporation is, to at least some extent, a scofflaw when it comes to employment, environmental and consumer protection issues. There is no reason to think this will change during the pandemic. In fact, companies may respond to a difficult business climate by cutting even more corners.

The two ways such misconduct can be kept in check are regulatory enforcement and litigation. We have an administration that believes regulation is an evil to be eradicated.

This makes the civil justice system all the more important, yet business lobbyists and their Congressional allies are trying to move the country in exactly the opposite direction. They want to liberate big business from any form of accountability, giving it what amounts to an immunity passport. Heaven help us if they succeed.

Getting Tough on Corporate Killing

The lead story on the front page of a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal was about the former chief executive of a Brazilian mining company not widely known in the United States. The Journal’s editors probably realized their readers would be shaken by the news that Fabio Schvartsman has been charged with homicide in the deaths of 270 people in a mining dam collapse last year.

The decision by prosecutors in the state of Minas Gerais to bring such charges against Schvartsman as well as other former executives at Vale SA shows the depth of anger in Brazil at the giant iron ore company over the accident in which a torrent of waste swept away people, submerged houses and created a large toxic wasteland (photo).

Vale and a German consulting company, five of whose officials were also hit with homicide charges, are alleged to have long known about a critical safety flaw in the tailings dam but failed to act.

Although Brazil does not have a death penalty or life sentences for civilian offenses, the filing of homicide charges against corporate executives is an aggressive measure that has rarely been applied in that country or anywhere else.

There are more precedents when it comes to corporate manslaughter, which is the idea that a business entity can be prosecuted for causing the death of employees or other persons. For example, in 2007 the United Kingdom enacted the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, though that law has not been enforced as rigorously as many advocates had hoped.

In the United States there is no such federal statute, though the principle of corporate criminal liability is well-established, and numerous companies have faced criminal charges, though they frequently end with deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements.

The Violation Tracker database has more than 1,600 criminal cases (compared to 395,000 civil matters). Many of these are financial in nature or involve violations of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act that are deemed negligent or deliberate but usually don’t involve loss of life.

A much smaller number involve corporate killing, including notorious cases such as BP’s role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster or the Upper Big Branch disaster at a coal mine owned by Massey Energy.

In these matters, however, the corporations, as in civil cases, mainly paid financial penalties and their executives faced no personal liability. One exception was former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards and was sentenced to a year in prison. Otherwise, the Justice Department has shown little interest in prosecuting corporate executives for environmental or workplace fatalities.

There has been a bit more of such activity at the local level, especially on the part of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. It has brought criminal charges against both companies and individuals in connection with workplace and other accidents. For example, in November 2019 a building owner, a plumber and a contractor were convicted of manslaughter by causing a 2015 explosion resulting from unauthorized natural-gas connections installed in a rental building.

Three years earlier, the Manhattan DA won a conviction against a construction supervisor accused of ignoring warnings about unsafe conditions on a building site that resulted in a fatal accident.

The approach of the Manhattan DA and the prosecutors in Brazil points to a promising way forward in the handling of corporate misconduct that results in serious harm or death. If they know they may end up behind bars for a long time, corporate executives and managers may become more serious about their responsibility to abide by health and safety laws.

Trump’s War on Workers

Donald Trump’s blue-collar supporters may like what they are seeing on Fox News, but when they arrive at work the MAGA revolution is nowhere to be found. Far from empowering labor, the Trump Administration’s employment policies are heavily skewed toward management.

The aspect of this I’ve been focusing on lately are wage and hour issues. Recently my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project and Jobs With Justice published Grand Theft Paycheck, a detailed look at wage theft by large corporations. We found that major employers in a wide range of industries continue to pay out large sums in collective action lawsuits, which indicates that they continue to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act by compelling employees to do off-the-clock work and denying them proper overtime pay.

Such litigation may soon be a thing of the past. There are signs that collective actions are failing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems ruling, written by Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, affirming the right of employers to use mandatory arbitration to block group lawsuits. For example, a federal judge in California told a group of Domino’s Pizza drivers that they had to use arbitration rather than litigation to resolve their claims against franchise owners.

At the same time, instead of intensifying enforcement by the Wage and Hour Division, Trump’s Labor Department is promoting a new approach based on corporate self-audits and fewer fines. Allowing employers to operate on the honor system is just another way of weakening enforcement.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that the Trump DOL is also reducing enforcement of workplace safety and health rules.  NELP found that OSHA enforcement activity in FY2017 was down compared to the previous year. The decline was even more pronounced during the first five months of FY2018, when the number of enforcement units (the measure used by OSHA) fell by more than 7 percent. This trend is likely to worsen, since NELP notes that the number of OSHA inspectors has been declining.

Federal workers are facing an assault of their own. Trump recently announced plans to overhaul rules affecting more than two million employees, making it easier to discipline and fire them. The move also includes an attack on federal unions through stricter limits on the amount of time grievance officers and other activists can spend on union activity during working hours.

The next blow will come in the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision soon in the Janus case that blocks the ability of public sector unions to collect fees from employees who decline to join but still benefit from collective bargaining agreements and other protections negotiated by those unions. Such a ruling could have a devastating financial impact on public unions.

As bad as all this sounds, it could boomerang on Trump and his corporate allies. More workers may follow the example of the teacher wildcat strikes and put their faith in self-organization rather than a demagogue.

Workplace Hazards in the Tech Economy

The titans of the tech economy want us to believe that among their achievements is the transformation of the workplace into a more humane and nurturing environment. This accounts for the frequent stories about headquarters campuses with endless amenities and flexible work arrangements.

It’s often another story when you look beyond those glittering complexes to the more mundane sites where the routine work is done. The manufacturing, distribution and customer service facilities that prop up the tech companies have a lot in common, in a bad way, with their old economy counterparts.

The latest indication of that reality comes in the 2018 edition of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s Dirty Dozen list of employers that put workers and communities most at risk. The council is a federation of local COSH groups that for nearly 50 years have been promoting safer workplace practices.

This year’s Dirty Dozen includes two new-economy corporations that work hard to portray themselves as enlightened: Amazon.com and Tesla Motors.

Amazon makes the list because of a series of fatal workplace accidents at its warehouses over the past five years. The report points out that the facilities create hazards by demanding that workers maintain a dangerously intense pace of work in order to service the company’s rapid delivery system. One Amazon center in Pennsylvania became infamous for having paramedics stationed outside full-time to deal with the frequent cases of dehydration and heat stress.

Violation Tracker’s summary page for Amazon lists 17 OSHA fines totaling $208,675 – but most of those come from its Whole Foods subsidiary. Amazon’s distribution and fulfillment centers don’t have more entries because many of their workers are technically employees of temp agencies and leasing firms.

Tesla makes the Dirty Dozen list because National COSH found that its injury rate was 31 percent higher than the rest of the automotive industry and its rate of serious injuries was 83 percent higher. The report cites a series of articles about the safety problems at Tesla, including a Los Angeles Times story stating that Tesla had an accident rate greater than notoriously unsafe industries such as sawmills and slaughterhouses, despite being much more automated.

Tesla’s reported accident rate may actually be understated. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal project found that Tesla failed to include some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports.

Among the reasons Amazon and Tesla have been able to get away with their unsafe practices is the absence of unions in their U.S. facilities. Both companies have succeeded, so far, in beating back labor organizing campaigns by employing the argument that workers at a supposedly enlightened company do not need a third party to represent them.

The truth, of course, is that unions are not really third parties but instead an expression of the desire of workers to present a united front in dealing with management. When it comes to employers such as Amazon and Tesla, that collective action may be the only way to ensure that workers can get through the day in one piece.

Bizarro-World Worker Populism at Trump’s OSHA

The bizarro-world worker populism of Donald Trump strikes again. The White House recently nominated Scott Mugno to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mugno (photo at left) is not a worker safety advocate, occupational health scientist or a union official. Instead, he is a corporate safety executive at the shipping giant FedEx.

Data in Violation Tracker shows since 2000 FedEx has racked up $335,853 in OSHA penalties (counting only those fines of $5,000 or more designated as serious, willful or repeated). This total is the 208th largest among the 1,777 parent companies in Violation Tracker with OSHA fines.

While FedEx may not be at the very top of the OSHA penalty list, it does have some significant safety blemishes on its record. In 2014, for example, OSHA proposed a fine of $44,000 against the company for failing to properly guard a conveyor belt at its facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts. In its press release announcing the proposed penalty (which FedEx managed to get deleted), the agency noted that the company had previously been cited for the same issue at two other facilities.

Moreover, FedEx in general and Mugno in particular have tried to weaken OSHA oversight. In a 2006 presentation at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event, Mugno argued that workers needed to take more responsibility for health and safety issues, conveniently ignoring the fact that they rarely have the autonomy to make meaningful changes in workplace conditions.

Another sign of Mugno’s orientation is the warm reception his nomination has received from business groups such as the Chamber and the American Trucking Association. At the same time, public interest groups have expressed concern. Public Citizen came out in opposition to the nomination, citing Mugno’s 2006 remarks and arguing that his “stance on laws and regulations do not mesh with leading an agency tasked with writing rules to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.” The Center for Progressive Reform posted a long list of questions that need to be put to Mugno.

The Center, by the way, has just introduced a Crimes Against Workers Database that compiles information on state-level criminal actions against companies and their executives implicated in serious workplace accidents. (I’m pleased to report that the database includes links to Violation Tracker data, and I plan to reciprocate.)

It was to be expected that Trump, who repeatedly bashed the EPA during the presidential campaign, would have named a climate change denier and regulation hater like Scott Pruitt to head that agency. Yet Trump did not carry on a similar tirade against OSHA, perhaps realizing that many of his blue-collar supporters were all too aware of workplace hazards that needed the agency’s oversight.

If Trump were any kind of real populist, he could have named a true worker safety advocate to OSHA without breaking any campaign promises. Instead, he brought in a business apologist who will pursue the Chamber agenda and raise the risk level for millions of American workers. The Trump corporate takeover marches on.

Should Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s Petrochemical Industry?

Much of the Gulf region remains flooded, people are still being rescued, and the full magnitude of the damage is not yet known. But soon the center of attention will be the rebuilding effort and how to pay for it.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is talking about the need for a federal aid package well in excess of $100 billion. Whatever the amount turns out to be, the critical issue will be how the money is distributed.

It’s already clear that the petrochemical facilities clustered in southeastern Texas have been hard hit by the flooding, and there will no doubt be calls to use both federal and state financial resources to help repair these plants.

While there should be no hesitation about using public funds to help the people of the Gulf rebuild their lives, we shouldn’t automatically do the same for the petro giants.

The first reason is that these companies can well afford to rebuild on their own dime. Exxon Mobil, which owns the giant refinery in Baytown, earned more than $130 billion in profits during the past five years. The Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, another massive facility, is owned by Aramco, which in turn is owned by the fabulously wealthy government of Saudi Arabia.

Second, taxpayers made enormous financial contributions to the construction and operation of these facilities. As shown in Subsidy Tracker, the Motiva refinery was awarded a $257 million state and local subsidy package in 2006 to help underwrite its expansion. Earlier this year, Exxon and SABIC, another Saudi company, were granted a $460 million package to jointly build a petrochemical plant near Corpus Christi.

Apart from being subsidized, many of the Gulf region’s petrochemical plants have horrible compliance records regarding toxic emissions and worker safety. The most notorious example is the refinery in Texas City between Houston and Galveston that was previously owned by BP and subsequently sold to Marathon Petroleum. In the wake of a 2005 explosion at the facility that killed 15 workers, BP was fined a then record amount of $21 million by OSHA for a pattern of egregious safety violations in Texas City. The company failed to make the necessary corrections and was later hit with an even larger penalty. BP also had to pay nearly $180 million to settle a federal environmental case involving the refinery.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2013 Shell Oil had to pay more than $117 million to resolve Clean Air Act violations at its Deer Park refinery outside Houston. The chemical plant in Crosby, Texas owned by the French company Arkema, where flooding has caused explosions, was fined $107,918 earlier this year by OSHA for serious safety violations (company later negotiated a reduction down to $91,724).

Providing more subsidies for these facilities would in effect negate the impact of the penalties the corporations paid for their negligence.

Finally, there is the difficult question of whether all these facilities should be rebuilt at all, especially if taxpayer funds are involved. The Gulf refineries play a significant role in an energy system that exacerbates the climate crisis, which likely contributed to the intensity of Harvey. We may not be free of fossil fuels yet, but does it make sense to use public resources to prolong the life of facilities linked to extreme weather events that threaten our future?

Pitting Jobs Against the Environment Again

Jobs versus the environment: The notion that the interests of workers were inherently anti-ecological was widely held in the 1980s. Much of the world now accepts that employment and environmental protection can go hand in hand, but the Trump Administration is trying hard to turn back the clock. Dismantling safeguards is presented as the key to job creation.

That same misguided approach can be seen in the terms of the deal that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker is offering the Taiwanese electronics firm Foxconn in exchange for a commitment to build a $10 billion flat-screen plant that will supposedly create up to 13,000 jobs.

The plan — which Walker announced at the White House along with Trump, Vice President Pence and  Speaker Paul Ryan, whose district is expected to be the site of the facility — is generating a great deal of controversy in Wisconsin over the $3 billion subsidy package the governor wants to offer the company.

Yet those special tax breaks are not the only incentive being dangled in front of Foxconn. The draft bill being considered by the state legislature would also free the company from having to file an environmental impact statement and exempt it from a variety of state environmental rules. It would also ease regulations for utilities that build facilities inside the special zone that would be created for Foxconn.

Environmental groups in the Badger State are sounding the alarm, but there is no indication that their concerns are having much of an impact on Walker, who has said that critics of the Foxconn deal can go “suck lemons.”

The special regulatory breaks Wisconsin has cooked up would be troubling in any project, but they are especially worrisome in this deal, given the company involved. It’s widely known that Foxconn has a lousy record on labor rights in Asia, but it also has a troubled history when it comes to the environment.

In 2011 a coalition of Chinese environmental groups published a report listing Foxconn as one of several Apple contractors whose operations were causing serious environmental damage. Two years later, the watchdogs released a film with footage they said showed Foxconn releasing water with high levels of heavy metals into a river feeding Shanghai’s Huangpu River.

Foxconn was also said to be lax when it came to workplace safety. An explosion at its iPad plant in Chengdu that killed three workers and injured 15 others was attributed to the accumulation of combustible dust.

As with its record of abusive labor practices, Foxconn has claimed that it has cleaned up its act on environmental matters. Maybe so, but any plant of the size that the company is promising will have an enormous impact on water and air quality in Wisconsin. Rather than weakening environmental safeguards, the state should be tightening them for this project.

Walker, who has a terrible track record on environmental issues, may be treating the Foxconn deal as an experiment in deregulation. Letting Walker — and by extension Trump, Pence and Ryan — use the Foxconn deal to bring back the bad old days of jobs-versus-the-environment would do no one any good.

The Corporate War on Coal Miners Continues

The signing ceremony for Donald Trump’s executive order nullifying the climate initiatives of the Obama Administration was staged so that about two dozen miners looked on adoringly as the president claimed to be ending the so-called war on coal. Trump then repeated his promise that the regulatory rollbacks would “put our miners back to work.”

Just about every analysis concludes this is a hollow promise. Trump’s action will have little impact on the long-term decline of coal industry jobs. Even industry figures such as Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, are warning: “He can’t bring them back.”

And even if there is a modest improvement, it won’t include the kind of well-paying jobs that used to characterize coal mining. According to the latest annual report on coal from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, unionized underground mining jobs are now outnumbered three to one by non-union surface mining jobs. The executive order’s lifting of the freeze on federal coal leasing, which is concentrated in Western surface mines, will increase the gap.

This did not happen by accident. The coal industry has been seeking for years to weaken the United Mine Workers by shifting work to non-union operations or by spinning off UMW-represented mines as weak stand-alone companies. The industry’s biggest producer, Peabody Energy, did this in 2007 when it shed Patriot Coal, which subsequently declared bankruptcy and was given court approval to slash wages, pensions and healthcare benefits of its workers and retirees. Today Peabody has only one operation left with a UMW presence. Anti-union animus was pronounced at various companies — especially Pittston and Massey Energy — that merged into what is now called Alpha Natural Resources.

One consequence of de-unionization is that coal managers can more easily cut corners on safety. This was seen at Peabody more than three decades ago. In 1982 the company pleaded no contest and paid a penalty of $130,000 to settle federal charges that it falsified dust-sampling reports submitted to the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) as part of the monitoring of conditions that can cause black lung disease. In 1991, after a year-long investigation by MSHA, Peabody once again stood accused of tampering with coal-dust test results. It pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was fined $500,000, the largest penalty that had ever been assessed for a non-fatal violation of federal mine safety regulations.

In 2006 a dozen miners died in a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine (then run by International Coal Group, which later merged into Arch Coal) had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial.

Allegations of poor safety practices at a non-union mine surrounded an even worse disaster — the death of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch operation in West Virginia in 2010. The mine had been cited more than 50 times by MSHA in the month before the explosion and had racked up 1,342 violations over the previous five years. In 2011 Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the accident, had to pay $209 million to settle federal criminal charges.

If Trump really wanted to do something to help coal miners, he would beef up MSHA’s enforcement capacity and embrace labor law reforms that would help the UMW regain lost ground. Instead, he is proposing a 21 percent cut in the budget of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, and staying silent on the anti-worker practices of the coal companies he is so eager to assist.

Labor Unenforcement

Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.

There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.

Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.

This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.

A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.

Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.

Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.

There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.

In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.