- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Bureaucrats at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) beat a hasty retreat earlier this month after the agency's ham-handed attempt to protect American workers in their own homes lit up phone and fax lines all over Capitol Hill.
An advisory letter, posted on OSHA's web site, had explicitly stated that businesses that permitted their employees to work from home were responsible under federal law for health and safety violations that occurred in the employees' home offices.
Labor Department officials tut-tutted that OSHA snoops would not be making surprise inspections of private homes, but that was hardly reassuring, since the advisory also made it clear that OSHA expected employers to do the snooping for them. "Surprised and shocked" at the public's reaction, the White House and Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The day after the advisory was posted, it was somewhat sheepishly taken down, and that was the end of that.
Or so we thought.
But the feds don't give up that easily. The OSHA policy remains in effect, according to a recent report in Investor's Business Daily. Worse, it's clear OSHA is just warming up. Already on tap is a proposed rule on ergonomics that could make employers liable for 90 percent of pay and 100 percent of benefits for up to six months for those employees complaining of carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain or other hard-to-define musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs). The National Academy of Sciences will issue its report on the causes of workplace MSDs in 2001. OSHA, however, wants its rule on the books before then, causing some to suspect this is a Clinton administration payback for union support during the last two elections.
OSHA had also planned to update its record-keeping rules as of Jan. 1 of this year. Hidden in the fine print is an item that could require employers to record injuries to employees that occur outside the workplace. Injure yourself skiing, aggravate the injury on the job, and, surprise, OSHA says your employer is responsible for the whole problem. Enforcement of this regulation has been pushed back to 2001 at the earliest, but you can see the trend here massive new liabilities for employers, with small businesses hardest hit.
In all of this, OSHA's home-office ruling is the most disturbing. With the tight labor market and the development of new technologies, we are steadily becoming a nation of teleworkers, collaborating across continents and time zones by e-mail, telephone and fax. Where we work, even whom we work for, is not as important. The concept of core business hours and single office locations is becoming obsolete. Already nearly 20 million full- or part-time company employees telecommute, more than double the number a decade ago. Add to that more than 6 million self-employed "free agents," including independent contractors and consultants, a third of them women.
To be sure, without guidelines for teleworkers, it's often difficult for employers to know just where the legal pitfalls are. If an employee is injured at home, how do you determine whether it's work-related? If an employer provides his home-based employees with computers, software, and ergonomically correct office furniture, does the employer retain ownership or should the employee consider it a gift? How does one handle promotion and productivity issues? If Telecommuter Tom thinks he lost out on a promotion to company-based Cal because their boss "forgot" about him, he might sue.
Fortunately, businesses and their employees seem to be working through most of these legal and practical issues without government meddling. Congress should see it stays that way.
Labor regulations put in place to counter the industrial feudalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when employees were trapped inside companies, don't apply to this new work environment. And efforts by the Labor Department and its union allies to sustain the old rules, either by forcing government into our homes or forcing workers out of their homes and into centralized offices, complete with long highway commutes and separation from family, will not be acceptable to those who've had a taste of autonomy.
In this month's uproar over OSHA's home-office policy, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman attempted to save face, saying the controversy had been useful in raising important questions about what "protections" Americans working at home could expect, and calling for a "national dialogue" to determine the "rules of the road." That's the usual bureaucratic response to an unruly citizenry as is quietly leaving the policy in effect, public opinion be damned.
But if protection is to be the topic, then indeed let's have a national dialogue. I'll throw out the first question: How do we protect ourselves from government?

Candace C. Crandall, former press relations director for several D.C.-area public policy institutes now is a communications consultant in Fairfax.

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