UE News, February 2000
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
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
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.
CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
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
STANDARDS ARE STANDARDS
"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.