September 28, 2018 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At BuzzFeed News, Chris Hamby reports that David Zatezalo, Trump’s appointee in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and who previously ran a coal company cited for multiple safety violations, has taken steps to undermine the agency’s “pattern of violations” rule, which allows for serious penalties to be levied against unsafe mine operators. Recently, according to the article, Zatezalo released Pocahontas Coal Company, owned by a Ukrainian billionaire, from a pattern-of-violations status in a move described as based on “the administration’s corrupted reading of the law.” Hamby reports:

The trade association Zatezalo chaired until 2014 is suing the agency he now runs in an attempt to invalidate the pattern of violations rule entirely. Under the Obama administration, the agency defended the rule in court, but, under the Trump administration, it has reversed course and is negotiating a settlement with the industry groups. Zatezalo has declined to recuse himself from participating in those talks.

The settlement with Pocahontas Coal was filed under seal but became public after commissioners at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission asked why secrecy was necessary. Rather than provide an explanation, the agency and the company lifted the seal on the documents.

The commission ultimately allowed the settlement, but Commissioner Robert Cohen dissented, calling the deal an “unlawful agreement” that could substantially undermine “the most powerful tool for protecting the lives of the nation’s miners.”

A Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesperson said the agency “entered into this settlement at the direction of Assistant Secretary David Zatezalo, and upon the advice of the career associate solicitor.” In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Zatezalo said, “In litigating this matter, I believe this was the strongest enforcement action that would withstand judicial scrutiny.” The spokesperson refused to address Cohen’s conclusion that the agency had no legal authority to lift a pattern of violations designation in a settlement.

Former Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith called the move “shocking” and “illegal.” The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under Obama, Joe Main, said the dubious settlement could undercut “the biggest disaster-prevention action taken” during the last 40 years.

Read the full story at BuzzFeed News.

In other news:

Houston Chronicle: Matt Dempsey reports that lawmakers have tucked a provision into the massive agricultural spending bill known as the Farm Bill that would exempt the entire chemical manufacturing industry from workplace safety rules proposed in the aftermath of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people. The Department of Labor says the provision would create a broad exemption from OSHA standards for managing highly hazardous chemicals and could have the “unintended consequence” of letting large chemical facilities sidestep the rules by claiming to be retail stores. Dempsey quoted Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland professor who tracks chemical regulations, who said: “They’re trying to make sure that OSHA never has jurisdiction over places like the facility in West. If there’s not a flashlight shining on this dark corner, an explosion like West is going to happen again.”

Reveal (Center for Investigative Reporting): Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter report that former patients of the drug rehab program Recovery Connections Community in North Carolina are suing for years of unpaid labor as caregivers in adult care homes. The suit comes after a Reveal investigation found that the rehab patients regularly worked more than 80 hours per week without pay, while the program’s founders “used the rehab program to fuel a lavish lifestyle.” According to the article, the rehab program marketed itself to poor and desperate people struggling with addition, who were promised help in exchange for their labor. Many patients were sent to the rehab program as a condition of their probations. Harris and Walter write: “The businesses paid Recovery Connections a ‘sub-market rate’ for the workers, despite knowing that rehab patients worked long hours and wouldn’t receive any pay for their work, the complaint said. The rates were so low, the complaint said, that they threatened to drive down wages for the entire industry.”

The Post and Courier: Hannah Alani reports on the experience of hourly workers who faced evacuations due to Hurricane Florence, highlighting concerns about lost income and fears of losing one’s job altogether. She interviewed a number of workers, including Kristen Kornbluth, a restaurant worker in Charleston, who said: “There’s no way I’m going. It’ll make me look not dependable. I don’t want to leave anybody in a hard spot.” Harper Howell, a bartender in Charleston, said: “If you’re not present, you’re not getting paid. That’s the downfall of working in our industry.” Alani writes: “Hourly workers up and down the coast grappled not only with the anxieties over preparing for the approaching storm but also with the uncertainty over what it might cost them.”

Quartz: Simone Stolzoff writes that millennial union membership is on the rise, reporting on Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that union membership among people younger than 35 is increasing, with almost 400,000 more union members in that age group in 2017 than in 2016. In comparison, the number of union members ages 35 and older has changed little in the last five years. Stolzoff interviewed Steven Pitts, a labor professor at the University of California, who pointed to a number of factors that could explain the trend, including the contraction of job sectors with older union members, like coal mining, and a millennial population that didn’t grow up in the anti-union era of the 70s and 80s. She writes: “Lastly, workers outside of traditionally unionized sectors are forming unions. The push for unionization in newer industries like digital media and coffee shops has given younger folks more access to resources for organizing. But Pitts also believes young people’s desire to unionize has gone up as the purchasing power of their income has gone down.”

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