- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

In another time, BTG Inc. might have lost a valued employee. The employee's wife, it seems, had just taken a job in Pittsburgh, a move that would make for quite a commute to BTG, an information systems and technical services company in Northern Virginia. Fortunately, employer and employee were able to work out an arrangement in which he could "telecommute" or "telework" from Pittsburgh and do his job from home. Millions of Americans have worked out similar deals to the great satisfaction of most, if not everyone, involved.
Perhaps not for long though. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration stunned almost everyone outside the agency this week by announcing that home offices would have to meet government standards once reserved for potentially dangerous workplaces. In a letter to a California company, which had requested information about home-workplace rules more than two years before, the agency said, "Ensuring safe and healthful working conditions for the employee should be a precondition for any home-based work assignments."
So sweeping a dictate covers hazards ranging from the toy left on stairs leading to the home office in clear violation of OSHA's rules arrest that toddler to the number of illuminated exit signs over doorways to the adequacy of furniture in reducing musculoskeletal disorders, sometimes referred to as back or neck aches. The letter further stated that employers were responsible, and therefore potentially liable, in the event an employee suffered a work-related injury while working at home.
In the ensuing uproar, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, risking injury that comes of abrupt policy flip-flops, has announced the agency's letter did not really mean what it said. It was merely "guidance" given to a single company, she said. Besides, she continued, the "rules aren't so clear." But as long as the subject has come up, she thoughtfully offered to "open a dialogue about the issue."
A BTG official, Chief Financial Officer Todd Stottlemyer, made his contribution to the "dialogue" both at a press conference hastily gathered by Rep. Frank Wolf, another critic of the OSHA rule, and in a subsequent interview. Did the government really expect him to send staff to Pittsburgh to make sure his employee there has adequate lighting and ventilation in his home office, Mr. Stottlemyer wondered? "As someone put it, OSHA needs a special assistant for common sense," he said. "What in the world could these people be thinking?"
Ironically, Mr. Stottlemyer served on a Virginia transportation task force that recommended policies which encouraged greater, not lesser, use of teleworking. Among the policies that Gov. Jim Gilmore subsequently endorsed was one providing a tax credit to employers for the purchase of equipment that allows employees to work from home.
Another business official attending the press conference, Christine Kallivokas, vice president of operations for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, expressed concern that OSHA's rule would lead companies to deal with home-office liability by doing away with home-office arrangements. She has been teleworking since her 1-year-old child was born. Without that flexibility, she said, she would have to "make some decisions" about her career and her work. It's not a decision she's eager to face.
As for monitoring the safety of home offices, Ms. Kallivokas said she trusted her employees to take care of themselves. For example, "I don't tell my employees to drive a safe car," she said. "That's their responsibility."
Individual responsibility sounds like a quaint notion at a time when distant federal regulators casually dictate the make, model and dimensions of office equipment to people who think of themselves as otherwise "free." Secretary Herman's modest retreat doesn't change that. Hers are the words of a kind and gentle leader, one who is willing to have a "dialogue" about her proposal and perhaps even negotiate over it. But let there be no mistake: She is the ruler, and Americans are the ruled.
Alexis de Tocqueville once warned that the United States might someday face this kind of "provident" oppression. "It covers," he said, "the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men's will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is not more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd."
Nor should such petty oppression come as a surprise. "One should never expect," he said, "a liberal, energetic, and wise government to originate in the votes of a people of servants."
Alexis Herman need not fear any "dialogue" with a people of servants. Her action is one more reminder of the danger of allowing the government to shepherd the American people anywhere, including their home offices.
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