Features

OSHA at the door

National | As the home-office trend takes off, some in Washington want to start measuring staircases

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

and Lynn Vincent - Republicans are blasting a potential incursion by OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, into the American home. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Workforce Committee's investigations panel, last week began hearings into the issue of regulating work at home. Although some portrayed the hearings as political, they were keying on the biggest employment trend of recent years: the mushrooming number of Americans who regularly work from home. In the last decade the number of teleworkers increased fivefold to 20 million. The trend, enabled by telecommunications technology and driven by workers seeking to balance work life and home life, shows no signs of letting up. In one survey conducted last year by the New York-based corporate outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, nearly half of human resources executives polled said "telecommuting"-corporate America's term for employees working from their homes-would be the biggest workplace trend as the new millennium gets underway. Employers across the country are reporting big benefits from letting employees clock in from home. Telecommuters call in sick less and change jobs less frequently. Many are more productive than their office-only counterparts. Historic unemployment lows (currently below 5 percent), coupled with an unprecedented demand for technically savvy employees, have forced companies to offer more flexible scheduling options. For example, Nortel Networks, a billion-dollar, Dallas-based telecommunications company, employs at least 5,000 teleworkers. Other companies, like AT&T and Arthur Anderson, are also advertising telecommuting as an attractive employment option. Kathy Kane, author of Flexible Work Options (Motorola University Press, 1998), said flexible scheduling and telecommuting are now "critical for recruiting and retention. You're not going to get or keep the best talent if you don't pay attention to what they need." Even Congress acknowledged the trend toward at-home work, passing legislation that gives incentives to companies who encourage telecommuting. Many individuals have benefited mightily from the new trend. Two-and-a-half years ago, 32-year-old Julie McIntyre was feeling pretty good about life. She'd just landed a new job at Nortel Networks. With her new paycheck, she and her husband were just learning they could more easily support their two adopted children, one of whom is mentally disabled. But six months into the job, Mrs. McIntyre's health suddenly regressed. A degenerative muscular disease she had endured for 15 years accelerated without warning, making simple tasks like getting dressed or driving to work an excruciating ordeal. "It could take me literally hours to get ready," said Mrs. McIntyre. "I went from winning performance awards and glowing reviews to really feeling like a failure." After months of fighting the disease's rampage, Mrs. McIntyre decided to relinquish her full-time position. That's when Nortel offered a telecommuting option that became a godsend for Mrs. McIntyre and her family. Working at home enabled her to arrange full-time hours around an unpredictable disease, and still retain enough energy to care for her children. But ominous handwriting appeared on the wall of Mrs. McIntyre's home office last month, and the federal government was holding the pen. An OSHA letter last month hinted at a government plan to regulate at-home work environments. OSHA sent the letter in response to a 1997 request for guidance by Computer Sciences Corporation, a Texas-based firm. The letter warned that employers "could be liable" for dangerous conditions in employee home offices, and listed hazards-such as "unsafe" staircases, dim lighting, improper ventilation, and hazardous home electrical circuits-that employers should look out for. One statement in particular rattled Mrs. McIntyre and many others. The OSHA letter declared that "The exercise of reasonable diligence may necessitate an on-site examination of the working environment by the employer." In other words, government-mandated home inspections might be coming. "My biggest concern is that for some reason I would not be found eligible [to work at home], that there would be some governmental reason that I could not work like this when this is the only way I have to work and support my family," she worried. Not everyone was upset by the prospective OSHA policy. AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminiario told The Washington Post that the proposed initiative "makes sense," for "Employers have to provide employees a workplace free from hazards." Washington attorney Eugene Scalia explained in The Wall Street Journal a driving force behind such thinking: "For labor unions, at-home workplaces are a nightmare.... How do you unionize workers who don't come to the office?" Some analysts believe organized labor may be driving OSHA's foray into the regulatory vacuum in an attempt to discourage telecommuting by making the practice more costly to companies. But OSHA now finds itself opposed by two segments of industrial America-business leaders who see telecommuting as a competitive, cost-saving recruitment tool, and teleworkers who see OSHA regulations as yet another barrier to freedom and flexibility. OSHA took more than two years to write the letter, but only a day to rescind it. Within 24 hours of the public outcry, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman ordered the letter withdrawn and called for a "national dialogue" on the issue. Despite OSHA's retraction of the offending letter, many employers and business leaders remained both skeptical of OSHA goals and ready to point out the importance of not harassing telecommuters. Jay M. Jaffe, president of Jaffe Associates, a Bethesda, Md.-based business development firm, says he couldn't stay in business if OSHA planted the big foot of big government in his employees' home offices. "The [financial] liability would be far too great," said Mr. Jaffe, who employs 28 at-home workers performing creative development, web design, and PR for the legal industry. "One of the benefits of being a virtual company is having limited traditional office space. Not only do I not have to pay as much rent, I also don't have to pay for huge multi-peril insurance policies. I can't stay in business to pay for those kinds of policies." Mr. Jaffe stated his view succinctly: "I think the government should stay out of my house." International Telework Association & Council president Gail Martin has labored for years to educate corporate managers about the benefits of telework, and to get them thinking about an annual savings of $10,000 per employee. She says an OSHA regulatory thrust could "become a barrier to the adoption of these new ways to work." It could also hamper entire companies such as Bookminders in southwestern Pennsylvania, which relies entirely on at-home accountants to service 150 companies. Founder and president Tom Joseph, who offers employees the option to telecommute, finds he can compete with Fortune 500 companies in recruiting accountants, and also save some careers: "I'm basically creating employable people who would otherwise choose not to work." The Hoekstra hearings raised some questions about the reach of OSHA, which already publishes reams of regulations on everything from eyewash stations to handicapped-access toilets. Could the agency decide the future of the home-office frontier? Could it ultimately force telecommuters to allow safety and health inspections of their homes? Could OSHA require home workers to equip for the possibility of handicapped clients? Might the agency enforce large-office requirements, such as wall-bracketed file cabinets, ergonomic furnishings, or a smoke-free work environment, and slap fines on employees who fail to comply? "If OSHA and the Department of Labor are actually rescinding their interpretation of health and safety rules for home work sites, we are delighted," the National Association of Manufacturers stated. "If they are just 'withdrawing the letter,' but sticking to the interpretation, the confusion remains." NAM vice president Patrick Cleary said, "The biggest losers in all of this, of course, are the millions of employees-of working families-who find it easier to balance the needs of work and family by occasionally working at home." While the debate goes on, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC)-the company whose query sparked the uproar-has long since given up waiting for OSHA. It opened 27 new home offices in its Houston division; "We developed our own set of internal policies and procedures, quite frankly, based on common sense and practical thinking," said CSC's Frank Pollora. Mrs. McIntyre is also going on with her telecommuting, but she still sees an OSHA-cloud hanging overhead: "What makes me nervous is that when you get a government mandate, all of a sudden the tendrils start coming out and creeping in."

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