- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman yesterday withdrew a department advisory that said employers are responsible for the health and safety of people working from home after a torrent of criticism from businesses and lawmakers.

She said that a letter published in November by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration was to one employer providing guidance about his employees working at home, and was not intended to apply to everyone with a home office.

"While this employer has received the guidance he needs, the letter has caused widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others. Therefore, OSHA is withdrawing the letter today," Miss Herman said yesterday in a teleconference.

The letter ignited a firestorm of controversy this week among businesses and lawmakers who have advocated working at home, or telecommuting, as an essential tool for the 21st-century work force.

Congressional Republicans seized on the issue, calling it an example of the federal government attempting to exert greater control over businesses and individuals.

Republicans already are battling OSHA over regulations proposed in November that would require employers to take new steps to minimize repetitive stress, or ergonomic, injuries in the workplace.

"There's a fine line separating big government from Big Brother," said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce employer-employee relations subcommittee.

Mr. Boehner demanded that the Labor Department give Congress all documents relating to the letter, which was sent to a Texas credit-services company seeking guidance on letting some of its employees work at home.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said the letter was "foolish" and called for hearings on OSHA's telecommuting policy.

OSHA often publicizes letters that interpret agency policy so businesses can use them for guidance. This letter, posted on the agency's Web site Nov. 15, drew swift attention from lawmakers, and concern from businesses and other groups interested in telecommuting.

The Clinton administration sought to downplay the issue, with Miss Herman saying the letter was "misinterpreted" and White House spokesman Joe Lockhart suggesting that the media was "hyperventilating" over the issue.

While business groups welcomed the withdrawal of the letter, they still are not sure what the laws are regarding safety and telecommuting.

"I commend her [Miss Herman] for withdrawing the letter, but we think OSHA needs to do more to clarify this issue," said James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Dyke, a lawyer with McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe in McLean, Va., warned employers to use caution when considering whether to allow telecommuting until OSHA clarifies its position on the matter.

Many businesses and governments see telecommuting as one solution to a number of workplace problems, such as increasing traffic congestion and the growing need for more flexible work arrangements.

While the idea of working from home is not new, advances in computer technology have made telecommuting a more viable option for a greater number of workers. Now, nearly 18 million people work from home at least once a week, according to Telecommute Magazine.

Some business groups, like the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, expressed fear that the letter meant that OSHA would soon begin inspecting home offices and assessing fines.

Miss Herman said OSHA does not have the resources and never intended to conduct home inspections of workstations. Of the some 13,000 work-site inspections OSHA conducts annually, the secretary said only 10 were of home offices. Those inspections were for jobs involving heavy equipment and potentially dangerous chemicals, not computer workstations, she said.

Far from opposing telecommuting, Miss Herman said the Labor Department supports any initiatives intended to help people balance work and home life. She called on the National Economic Council to convene a meeting to examine the broad social and economic effects of telecommuting.

"We acknowledge … that employers are responsible for employee safety and health, but we don't know what that means and how that applies to these new work arrangements in the home today. That is why we need a national dialog on this subject," Miss Herman said.

Both Hoekstra spokesman Jon Brandt and Mr. Dyke welcomed such a meeting. But Mr. Brandt said he is worried that the secretary's call for a meeting leaves open the possibility that OSHA could still try to regulate home offices.

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