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OSHA Homework

UE News, February 2000

OSHA Homework

Paid work in the home has been growing dramatically in recent decades. (Unpaid work at home, of course, is as old as human civilization.) Many textile workers, some legally and some not, now work in their homes under sweatshop conditions — often joined by their young children. Small-scale assembly operations are sent out for workers to do at home, many times by immigrant labor.

With the advent of computers and computer-based jobs, many professional and government workers work a day or two a week at home, while others work full-time at home at their computers. Many salespeople work their telephones all day at home. And of course, as people live longer, more Americans are finding work in private homes as caregivers to the elderly.

Along with these home-based jobs come health and safety hazards — back injuries from lifting, repetitive strain injuries from machine work and occupational illnesses from chemicals used on assembly lines. So it’s not surprising that sooner or later federal OSHA would be drawn into this work arena.


Last month OSHA got drawn in — big time! And it emerged with egg on its face, having angered not only its corporate and small-business enemies, but its friends in the labor movement as well. Here’s what happened.

In December 1999 California OSHA fined three electronics companies nearly $200,000 for violations associated with piecework assembly in homes, including chemical safety violations. Following company protests, CalOSHA asked federal OSHA to confirm that it had authority to levy these fines. In January OSHA announced that the fines were legal and these health and safety hazards in the home were violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

After only two days of angry company protests and lots of unwanted publicity, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman backed off, withdrew her previous letter, and called for a dialogue between all involved parties. Read: we’re not going to do anything about health and safety of home workers, at least not until after the presidential election in November. This was just another in a long list of sad retreats by OSHA and the Clinton Administration. But the problem of workers being injured and made ill by home work won’t go away, and workers in these jobs deserve the protection to which they are entitled under federal law.


The OSH Act is clear about who is and is not covered: All persons employed by employers in the private sector who engage in interstate commerce (unless there are some other laws which protect particular groups of workers, such as airline pilots or nuclear workers). State plans also cover city and state public employees.

OSHA does not cover self-employed persons, like consultants or accountants. (But if the accountants or consultants work together in a firm of any size, they are covered.) Also, household servants are specifically exempt from coverage, precisely to avoid sending inspectors into people’s homes (especially rich people’s homes).

It’s clear which home workers are covered by OSHA and which are not: If a worker in a home is working there as an employee of someone else, he or she is covered. So of course the workers in California who were employed by electronics companies were covered when they worked at home, and when they worked in the plant. A home health worker who is employed by a placement service is covered. A public employee who is allowed to work on his or her computer at home one day a week is covered. But a private consultant working for himself or herself at home or anywhere else is not covered.


Struggles over home work are part of a fight that has been going on for over a century. At the turn of the last century, the textile industry was hip-deep into home work. Desperate women and children were available to work long hours for low wages. But the resulting child labor and filthy living conditions gave rise to disease and ill health in the community. Labor unions and reformers such as Florence Kelly and Eleanor Roosevelt called for the abolition of home work. In 1938, they won passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which banned most home production. Later, the OSH Act, passed in 1970, added to the protection of workers at all worksites.

As a noted labor historian and a women’s studies expert said recently: "Telecommuting entrepreneurs will undoubtedly claim it is absurd to compare the working conditions of a computer-literate home worker in the exurbs to the grinding labor of a tenement-house sewing-machine operator on the Lower East Side in New York City. But it is not the character of the technology alone that determines the well-being of the workers or the level of their wages.


"When today’s computerized homebodies find themselves with a pain their wrists, fatigue in their neck or a crick in their lower back, the cause is remarkably similar to that of their sweatshop ancestors: inadequate equipment, self-exploitation and overwork.

"These are some of the reasons that our health and safety standards, as well as contemporary labor law, apply to all employees — including telecommuters. So as we open a dialogue about the workplaces of the future, let’s not leave behind the advances of the past. These include the guarantee of decent work in an environment that nurtures the worker instead of destroying the soul." (Nelson Lichtenstein and Eileen Boris, writing in the Los Angeles Times.)

What we really need in this new millennium is tough enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is still in effect, to end illegal home work. And for those who are legally working at home, we need OSHA health and safety enforcement for all workers who are covered there. This doesn’t mean random inspection of homes by OSHA inspectors trying to find home workers, but it does mean responding aggressively to complaints either from the workers or from others. And yes, it might mean that OSHA will conduct occasional inspections of homes where it knows such work is being done. The alternative after all, is unregulated, potentially abusive working conditions and a steady stream of injuries and illnesses on the job at home.

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