By Bruce Rolfsen
March 26 --Declaring that “no person should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez defended the Department of Labor's budget and policies during a March 26 hearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
The hearing was Perez's first appearance with the committee since taking office in July 2013.
While much of the two-hour session, with Perez as the only witness, focused on unemployment benefits, job training and retirement programs, Perez faced several questions about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA issues included farm inspection policies, the decision on which schools can offer online training courses and the ongoing silica rulemaking (see related story).
“I talk to employer after employer who recognize their most precious resource is their human capital; that it is a false choice to suggest that we either have to have job growth or job safety,” Perez told the lawmakers in his opening statement.
The White House requested $11.8 billion for the Labor Department, including $565 million for OSHA.
The hearing was Perez's first for the 2015 budget. He'll likely testify at additional House and Senate hearings.
Congressmen from both parties asked few questions directly concerning the spending plan. Instead, they asked about department policies.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee's Workforce Protections Subcommittee, raised issues about the silica rulemaking.
Walberg told Perez that businessmen have brought up concerns that OSHA's proposed rule will set limits for silica that are too low to be measured.
“How can a regulation be proposed to regulate what cannot be accurately measured?” Walberg asked.
Perez didn't directly answer the congressman's question.
“For decades, literally, we've known the impact of silica,” Perez responded. The secretary pointed out that OSHA is conducting ongoing hearings about the silica rule where all parties are airing their concerns.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” Perez said about the proposed rule.
The silica rule was backed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).
“This is something we still have to work on; we still have to improve,” Holt told Perez about protecting workers.
OSHA's proposal to increase its whistle-blower funding by $4 million to $21 million was raised by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.).
Perez said that in addition to boosting whistle-blower funding, he would like Congress to revise older whistle-blower rules so that they offer the same protections and options of the whistle-blower protection laws passed by Congress in recent years.
Salmon asked Perez to consider a whistle-blower law to protect people who work for unions. Perez said the department's Office of Labor-Management Standards already investigates allegations of corrupt practices in unions.
Salmon also asked why OSHA hasn't reopened the process for selecting schools to provide online training courses. The congressman pointed out that in July 2012, a federal judge found the earlier review process wasn't legal and since then OSHA hasn't started a new selection process.
Perez said he hadn't been aware of the problem, which predated his arrival at the department.
OSHA's regulation of farming activities was the focus of questions from Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.).
DesJarlais told Perez that farmers still talk to him about the Labor Department's “ill-conceived and thankfully unsuccessful” effort to enforce safety rules on family farms.
Perez said that the department is following the 2014 budget rider prohibiting OSHA from inspecting small farms.
The secretary added that inspectors may not know if a farm is exempt until they visit the farm. Defining a family farm, Perez said, is “easier said that done.”
Perez added the department wants to promote farm safety, regardless of a farm's size.
“I'm very proud of the preventative work our OSHA is doing,” the secretary said.
DesJarlais also voiced objections to OSHA's February 2013 guidance explaining when inspectors can be accompanied by third-party representatives, including union representatives requested by workers, at inspection sites.
Perez said the guidance didn't create a new policy, instead it clarified a practice in effect prior to the Obama administration.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim Stimson at email@example.com
Details of OSHA's 2015 budget request are available at http://www.dol.gov/dol/budget/2015/PDF/CBJ-2015-V2-12.pdf.
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