The Infrastructure of Workplace Protection

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.

The Violation Tracker Origin Story

The article and dazzling infographics on Violation Tracker just published by Fortune are not only great publicity for the database. They also provide an opportunity to recall how the idea for a resource on corporate misconduct came about in the first place.

As the Fortune piece mentions, the origin story dates back to 1980, when I was a young researcher on the staff of that same magazine. Yet there is more to be said about what occurred behind the scenes during that project and its aftermath.

Back then, Irwin Ross, a contributor to the magazine, had seen a news article about small-business corruption in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to explore similar behavior among large companies. His assumption—and that of Fortune’s editors—was that illegality was rare in big business.

After being assigned to the project, I set out to disprove that premise by gathering as many cases as I could involving our sample universe of just over 1,000 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500 and related lists at any point during the previous ten years. The editors decided to limit the scope of the research to five categories: bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion, and criminal antitrust violations.

To the dismay of the editors, I found that quite a few of the corporations – 117 to be precise – had been the subject of a successful federal prosecution during the specified time period. Among these was Fortune’s then-parent, Time Inc., whose subsidiary Eastex Packaging had pleaded no contest to a price-fixing charge.  

After much hand-wringing, Fortune’s editors decided to publish the list of the cases, along with an article by Ross, in the December 1, 1980 issue with the headline “How Lawless Are Big Companies?” and the subhead “A look at the record since 1970 shows that a surprising number of them have been involved in blatant illegalities.” The story was featured on the cover with a photograph depicting an executive being fingerprinted by a U.S. Marshal.

As one might expect, the companies included in the list were quite displeased. To their credit, Fortune’s editors did not retract or disown the article, but they did agree to give one of the corporations an opportunity to respond.

The December 29, 1980 issue contained a piece by William Lurie, general counsel of International Paper, headlined “How Justice Loads the Scales Against Big Corporations.” Calling my list “simplistic and misleading,” he tried to explain why IP had felt compelled to plead nolo contendere to price fixing charges. His argument was essentially that it was simply too risky for a company to fight such charges in court, given that a guilty verdict would open the door to crushing damages in a follow-on civil suit.

This was not exactly a profession of innocence. In fact, as the Fortune article noted and Lurie acknowledged, no contest is tantamount to a guilty plea. Lurie’s argument, like nolo itself, served as a way for corporations to save face after being labeled corporate criminals. His piece also took the pressure off Fortune editors for diverging from what was then their unvarying defense of corporate behavior.

For me, the experience created a life-long fascination with documenting corporate misconduct. I later learned that this kind of research had begun much earlier, especially through the work of the sociologist Edwin Sutherland. When his book White Collar Crime was published in 1949, the company names were removed. It was only in 1983 that an unexpurgated version was published by Yale University Press.

Following in the tradition of Sutherland’s book and other work such as the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, Violation Tracker is designed to show that lawlessness among large corporations is a problem that persists.

Note: drop me a line at pmattera@goodjobsfirst.org if you can’t get behind the Fortune paywall and want to see the whole story.