By Stephen Lee
President Obama called for $570.5 million in fiscal 2014 funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in his April 10 budget request, an amount that is essentially the same as the agency's current $569 million funding level.
The budget request includes a $5.9 million increase for OSHA's whistleblower enforcement program, raising that program's budget to $21.8 million. The agency would also hire 47 new staff members for the whistleblower program, OSHA chief David Michaels said in an April 10 web conference.
OSHA is responsible for enforcing the whistleblower protection programs under 21 different statutes.
Obama's budget also subtracts $2.8 million from the agency's compliance assistance program, bringing that amount to $75 million.
Michaels said the budget request would result in 33 fewer full-time employees, due to “reduced federal compliance activity from the consolidation of compliance assistance personnel in geographically dense regions and a decreased need for the development of outreach and training materials due to [the] completion of several recent initiatives.”
Michaels did not specify how the cut would affect OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, but he acknowledged that the program “is included in this budget activity.”
“To focus on the integrity and modernization of OSHA's cooperative programs and reduce the backlog of VPP recertifications, the agency will slow the growth in the number of new cooperative program participants,” Michaels said.
He also said OSHA has no plans to turn VPP into a fee-based program. OSHA explored that idea in 2010 at the behest of the House Education and Labor Committee, but ultimately rejected it (40 OSHR 287, 4/8/10).
“OSHA will continue to recognize worksites that demonstrate safety and health excellence through its VPP and will continue to implement initiatives targeting federal agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and the construction industry for VPP participation,” Michaels said.
The Obama budget also calls for a $2.1 million increase for safety and health standards, bringing the total for that program to $22 million, and a $1.1 million cut to the agency's technical support program, reducing that total to $25 million.
All the other line items within OSHA's budget are unchanged from the current budget, pre-sequestration. The agency has not publicly detailed how the $28 million in sequestration cuts have fallen across its various programs.
The biggest program allocation within OSHA remains federal enforcement, at $208 million, followed by state programs, at $104 million. The president's budget request also includes $58 million for state consultation grants, $34 million for safety and health statistics, $12 million for executive direction and administration, and $11 million for training grants.
OSHA's pre-sequestration $569 million budget for fiscal 2013 does not include $28 million in sequestration cuts that took effect March 1. The fiscal 2013 funding was extended from fiscal 2012 on a continuing resolution (H.R. 933), which was signed into law March 26 (43 OSHR 213, 3/7/13; 43 OSHR 293, 3/28/13).
Seth Harris, the Labor Department's acting secretary, said that Obama's budget, if adopted, would not continue the sequestration cuts.
The White House also said it plans to reorganize OSHA's regional offices, collapsing its 10 offices into seven. Under the plan, Regions 1 (Boston) and 2 (New York) would be consolidated into one region, as would Regions 7 (Kansas City) and 8 (Denver) and Regions 9 (San Francisco) and 10 (Seattle).
Michaels said the consolidations are expected to save $1.3 million and result in three fewer full-time staffers.
The same plan was laid out in Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request. Congress did not act on the consolidation plan (42 OSHR 151, 2/16/12).
The new budget request puts worker protection agencies “on sound footing to meet their responsibilities to protect the health, safety, wages, working conditions, and retirement security of American workers,” the White House said.
Separately, Obama said his budget seeks to make America a “magnet for new jobs and manufacturing,” in part by creating a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the country.
The budget further calls for $50 billion in infrastructure investments. Obama said nearly 70,000 bridges throughout the country are structurally deficient.
Peg Seminario, safety and health director at AFL-CIO, called the budget a positive step for workers, saying the agency needs more money for whistleblower enforcement because it has not received more resources over the years for that activity, even as the list of statutes under which it enforces whistleblower protections has grown to 21.
Michaels said OSHA allocates its whistleblower resources as needed, rather than committing them to particular statutes.
Moreover, Seminario said, Obama's $2 million cut to OSHA's compliance assistance programs reflects a realistic balancing of the agency's priorities.
“We have to remember that OSHA's core statutory responsibilities are setting standards, enforcing those standards, and protecting worker rights,” she said. “In those areas, they are the only game in town. And in other areas, [such as] compliance assistance, there are others that provide some of those services. That's not to say it's not an appropriate service for OSHA to provide, but given the other core activities and responsibilities for the agency, and in a time of tight budgets, some programs are going to take cuts.”
Baruch Fellner, an industry-side lawyer with Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher LLP, said the compliance assistance cuts are likely to mean more employers will have to spend money on hiring safety consultants, rather than on taking on more workers or investing in their businesses.
“These kinds of budgetary priorities demonstrate how askew the president's priorities really are,” Fellner said. “It should be on jobs. To say, 'You can get [compliance assistance] elsewhere'--wonderful. With which dollars?”
Fellner further said the budget reflects an overall philosophy that OSHA, under the Obama administration, “would rather lead by enforcement and, as Michaels put it when he first became assistant secretary, by shaming, as opposed to assisting employers in abating workplace hazards. It's almost as if the budget process provides OSHA with the excuse to do what it always intended to do. It never was committed to VPP or consultation.”
Dave Heidorn, manager of government affairs and policy at the American Society of Safety Engineers, said the budget “finally shows this administration's long-assumed priorities. Encouraging employers to buy into safety is fading as a value, relative to giving workers a voice.”
Similarly, Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, called the budget request “as good as could be expected, maybe even a little better than expected.”
Trippler said he was “pleased the president did not choose to cut annual spending, recognizing that the cut in funding from the sequester went way too far if OSHA is to protect workers. I am hopeful OSHA will now go back to funding totals where they were prior to the sequester.”
But Trippler expressed some concern about the cut in compliance assistance. “That might be the one downside to the proposal,” he said, particularly if the cuts affect VPP too heavily.
Overall, however, Seminario said OSHA would remain severely underfunded even if Obama's budget request was approved.
“We have to step back and remember that this agency has a huge responsibility, and a mission that covers hundreds of millions of workers,” she said. “And as the workforce has grown, as problems have become more complex, the agency's resources have not kept up. Its ability to provide workplace inspections, to conduct outreach--all of that has been significantly reduced.”
Although neither the House nor Senate budget resolutions (H. Con. Res. 25 and S. Con. Res. 8) include specific amounts for individual agencies, the competing budget blueprints chart very different paths for agency spending, with the House Republican plan calling for deep cuts to domestic programs and no new revenues, and the Senate Democratic budget prescribing milder domestic cuts coupled with tax increases (43 OSHR 294, 3/28/13).
The House and Senate budget resolutions were approved March 21 and 23, respectively.
Typically the president's budget precedes the House and Senate budgets, but this year Obama's budget was delayed some two months.
The House and Senate must now negotiate differences in their budgets and arrive at a reconciled plan before the fiscal year runs out on Sept. 30.
“To be clear, the package I am offering includes some difficult cuts that I do not particularly like,” Obama said. “But these measures will only become law if congressional Republicans agree to meet me in the middle by eliminating special tax breaks and loopholes so millionaires and billionaires do their fair share to cut the deficit. I will not agree to any deal that seeks to cut the deficit on the backs of middle class families.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chair of the House Budget Committee, said he was “disappointed by the president's proposal because it merely ratifies the status quo. It doesn't break new ground; it goes over old ground.”
The Labor Department budget is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2014/assets/labor.pdf.
The White House report, “Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings,” is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/ccs.pdf.