Workers’ health, safety, and pay are among the casualties of Trump’s war on regulations
A deregulation year in review
On December 14, 2017, President Trump held a press conference to take credit for the “most far-reaching regulatory reform in history,” claiming his administration has been responsible for more than 1,500 cancelled or delayed regulatory actions.1 He is expected to tout this number again at his upcoming State of the Union address to Congress. While the specific figure Trump cited at the press conference has been called into question, there is no disputing that Trump and congressional Republicans have engaged in an unprecedented attack on regulations over the last year, rolling back rules that were intended to protect workers, consumers, and public health.
The Economic Policy Institute’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages has been tracking Trump and Congress’s decimation of federal labor standards through deregulation since January 2017.2 Regulations play an essential role in protecting workers—ensuring safe workplaces and fair pay and protecting workers’ rights to organize and join a union so they can bargain collectively with their employers. But not only do regulations provide essential protections; research shows that federal regulations in fact provide an overall net benefit to the economy—contrary to what its opponents would have people believe.
In this report, we review what the research says about the benefits of regulations, and we shine a spotlight on Trump and Congress’s most egregious deregulatory actions—actions that advantage corporate interests and those at the top of the income distribution at the expense of low- and middle-income workers.
The facts about regulation
Regulations put laws into action, protecting America’s workers
Regulations are simply the rules of the game. Congress passes laws, and then federal agencies set the rules for how those laws are followed. For example, if Congress passes a law directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure “safe and healthful working conditions” in America’s workplaces, OSHA responds by promulgating specific rules that employers must follow in order to establish safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.
Regulations not only provide essential protections, but their economic benefits generally outweigh their costs
Opponents of regulations routinely emphasize the costs associated with regulations while ignoring their benefits. Rhetoric attacking regulations generally alleges that regulations are overly burdensome for employers and cost jobs. However, research shows that federal regulations in fact provide an overall net benefit to the economy and that they have a modestly positive or neutral effect on employment.
Federal regulations currently provide a net benefit to society of over $100 billion per year
To assess whether a regulation should be undertaken, agencies consider a comprehensive set of benefits and costs over a broad time horizon. For example, regulations establishing workplace safety standards save lives, and environmental protection regulations conserve natural resources and improve public health, which may provide benefits for generations. Safety regulations may require substantial upfront investments in safety equipment, but those investments pay off over the long term through a reduction in illnesses like lung cancer and through lives saved over decades. In addition, the need for the safety equipment creates jobs for the people producing the equipment.
Each year the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reports to Congress on the costs and benefits of federal regulations, with a focus on regulations for which agencies are able to estimate and monetize both costs and benefits. In its most recent report, OMB found that during the last administration, from January 21, 2009, to September 20, 2015, the estimated annual net benefit (benefits minus costs) of major federal regulations was between $103 and $393 billion.3 In other words, federal regulations are providing a net benefit to society of over $100 billion per year. And these numbers are consistent with prior OMB reports, as described below.
The ratio of benefits to costs is about 7 to 1
OMB reviewed major regulations from 2000 to 2010 and estimated that the average annual benefit of major regulations is about seven times the cost.4 OMB’s findings are even more significant when you consider studies showing that government regulators generally overestimate costs.5 Also, many benefits are never monetized, but almost all costs are.
Regulations have a modestly positive or neutral effect on employment
Research on the relationship between employment and regulations generally finds that regulations have a modestly positive or neutral effect on employment.6
How do regulations create jobs? When regulations reduce jobs in one area, they create jobs in another. For example, factories making lead paint shut down after regulations banning lead paint were issued in the late 1970s, but enterprises manufacturing lead-free alternatives arose in their place. And some of the older factories hired people to retool their machinery to begin manufacturing lead-free paint.
Mass layoffs are not caused by regulations, but lack of regulations can lead to job loss
“Mass layoff events” are incidents in which at least 50 unemployment insurance claims are filed against an employer during a five-week period. According to the latest data available (2011 and 2012), employers cite regulations as the reason for mass layoffs in just a tiny share of mass layoff events—one-quarter of one percent.7
On the other hand, the lackof sensible regulations can lead to economic catastrophe and the loss of millions of jobs. The belief that financial markets can “self-regulate” led to a wave of deregulation and lax enforcement beginning in the late 1970s and persisting right up to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession of 2007–2009. Deregulation and lax enforcement played a major role in the housing bubble and the financial and economic crisis that ensued when the bubble burst.8 Nearly nine million jobs were lost in 2008 and 2009. In the wake of this crisis, officials in charge of the nation’s two main financial regulatory agencies stated that self-regulation had failed. As Christopher Cox, then-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, stated, “We have learned that voluntary regulation does not work. . . . The lessons of the credit crisis all point to the need for strong and effective regulation.”9
This section lists the casualties of Trump’s war on regulations.
Deregulation casualty #1: Workers’ health and safety
Rolling back a rule that required employers to keep accurate records of workplace injuries and illnesses
Congressional Republicans approved and President Trump signed a Congressional Review Act resolution blocking the Workplace Injury and Illness recordkeeping rule, which clarifies an employer’s obligation under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to maintain accurate records of workplace injuries and illnesses.16
Recordkeeping is about more than paperwork. If an employee is injured on the job (for example, is cut or burned, or suffers an amputation), contracts a job-related illness, or is killed in an accident on the job, then it is the employer’s duty to record the incident and work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate what happened. Failure to keep injury/illness records means that employers, OSHA, and workers cannot learn from past mistakes and makes it harder to prevent the same tragedies from happening to others. By signing the resolution to block this rule, Trump gave employers a get-out-of-jail-free card when they fail to maintain—or when they falsify—their injury/illness logs. Workers who could have been saved from preventable accidents on the job will have to pay the price with their health or even their lives.
The history of the rule is as follows: Since the early 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has required many employers to keep careful records of workplace injuries and illnesses and to maintain those records for five years. If an employer’s injury/illness logs are inaccurate—for example, if a worker is injured on the job and the employer fails to log it—OSHA can issue a citation and fine.
For 40 years, from the early 1970s through 2012, OSHA had been able to issue those citations at any time within the five-year period that the illness/injury record was required to be kept. But in 2012, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, if a worker was injured, OSHA had only six months to check an employer’s log to make sure the injury was recorded and to issue a citation if it was not.17 That meant that even though employers are supposed to maintain injury/illness records for five years, an employer is off the hook if OSHA inspectors do not catch the employer’s record omission within the first six months after the injury. Since OSHA inspections generally take longer than six months, the court’s ruling made it a lot harder for OSHA to penalize companies for bad recordkeeping. One of the judges on the court, though, wrote that OSHA could issue a new rule clarifying employers’ recordkeeping duties.
In response, OSHA promulgated a rule to allow OSHA to resume what it had already been doing for 40 years: cite employers for failure to log injuries/illnesses anytime within the entire five-year period that the records must be kept.18 This rule created no new recordkeeping requirements for employers; it just allowed OSHA more time to do its work to ensure that employers are held accountable for protecting workers’ health and safety.
Delaying a rule requiring employers submit injury and illness records electronically to OSHA
OSHA’s electronic recordkeeping rule is an important supplement to the recordkeeping rule described above. The Obama-era rule does not create any new reporting requirements for employers—it simply requires employers who are currently required to keep OSHA injury and illness records to submit their records to OSHA electronically, making them publicly available. Improving data collection and dissemination of injury and illness incidents in America’s workplaces will allow OSHA, employers, employees, employee representatives, other government agencies, and researchers to identify patterns so that workplace hazards can be addressed and worker injuries and illnesses prevented. And because this information will be easily accessible to a broad audience on OSHA’s website, employers are more likely to comply with workplace safety rules to protect their workers—knowing that they’ll have to answer to the public if they don’t.19
According to the final rule, employers covered by the rule were required to submit their 2016 records electronically by July 1, 2017. But delays by OSHA pushed back the compliance date to December 2017, nearly six months after the original date.20 Most troubling, though, was OSHA’s November 2017 announcement that it intends to “reconsider, revise, or remove portions of that rule in 2018.”21
In 2016 alone, well over 5,000 workers died on the job.22 If OSHA rescinds or weakens this rule in 2018, it will mean that patterns of unsafe working conditions may be harder to detect, making workplaces even more dangerous for workers.
Delaying a rule protecting workers from exposure to harmful silica dust
After delaying enforcement for months, the Department of Labor announced in September 2017 that it would begin enforcing a rule to protect construction workers from occupational exposure to crystalline silica; however, enforcement of provisions protecting general industry and maritime workers will not begin until June 2018.23 This Obama administration rule lowered workers’ permissible exposure limit to deadly crystalline silica dust. The rule is made up of two permissible exposure standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime. The rule became effective June 23, 2016, and enforcement was originally scheduled to begin on June 23, 2017, but was delayed by the Trump administration. OSHA began enforcing most provisions of the standard for construction on September 23, 2017, and has announced that it will begin enforcing most provisions of the standard for general industry and maritime on June 23, 2018.
OSHA issued this rule to reduce workers’ exposure to cancer-causing respirable crystalline silica. Studies have linked exposure to silica to lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease. About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone.24 Responsible employers have been protecting workers from harmful exposure to silica for years, using widely available equipment that controls silica dust with a simple water spray to wet the dust down or a vacuum system to contain the dust. OSHA estimates that the rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year, once its effects are fully realized.25 It is past time for the Trump administration to start taking workers’ sides by enforcing this rule to protect working people’s lives and livelihoods.
Rolling back protections for workers exposed to beryllium
On January 9, 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration published its final rule on occupational exposure to beryllium and beryllium compounds, which was promulgated to protect employees exposed to beryllium from significant risks of chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.26 Under the Trump administration, OSHA proposed to rescind provisions of the rule intended to protect workers in the construction and shipyards sectors.27 DOL announced that OSHA will not enforce these January 9, 2017, shipyard and construction standards until further notice while this new rulemaking is underway.28
About 62,000 workers are exposed to beryllium in their workplaces, including approximately 11,500 construction and shipyard workers.29 The Trump administration’s proposal would rescind important protections in the new rule, which was issued after decades of effort and study that uncovered overwhelming evidence that OSHA’s 35-year-old beryllium standard did not protect workers from severe lung disease and lung cancer.30 Under Trump’s proposal, employers would no longer have to measure beryllium levels or provide medical testing to workers at risk of fatal lung disease. This proposal is another example of Trump’s willingness to abandon workers’ rights to come home safe and healthy at the end of the day, in favor of corporate profits.
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