Commentary: The Workplace Cops Could Use Some Backup

If President Clinton gets his way with next year's budget, employees will soon have more federal watchdogs keeping an eye out for them. Buried in the Administration's new spending proposals are hefty hikes for regulatory enforcement--especially for workplace issues such as civil rights, safety and health, and labor law (table).

Some Republicans and business groups are gearing up to oppose what U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice-President Bruce Josten calls "the era of Big Government coming back." But that's a knee-jerk reaction. What's surprising this time is that there are business groups that support the hikes. Groups such as the Equal Employment Advisory Council, (EEAC) representing 300 large companies, understand that the Administration isn't proposing a slew of new regulations. Instead, the extra spending would restore funds to enforce existing laws. Decades of cuts have led to lax oversight, allowing sweatshops to proliferate, for example, and leaving law-abiding companies vulnerable to corner-cutting rivals.

The biggest proposed hikes would help agencies cope with new laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Civil rights agencies have "been given more enforcement responsibilities without commensurate funding," says Jeffrey A. Norris, president of the Washington-based EEAC.

REAGAN'S RAID. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a good example. Its staff has plunged by nearly 25% since 1981, to 2,590 today. President Reagan started the cuts because he disagreed with some civil rights laws. President Clinton initially increased the staff a bit, but it has been cut again, by 10%, since Republicans reclaimed Congress in 1994.

Meanwhile, employees often wait months and years before abuses are stopped. The average EEOC investigator handled 77 cases at a time in 1997, up from 59 in 1991. Cases now take 358 days to resolve on average, vs. 254 in 1991. Many companies would support more funds to get charges resolved rapidly, says Norris.

The story is similar at the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Since 1994, Hill Republicans have grilled OSHA officials and tried to force the agency to be less aggressive. But in fact, OSHA's clout has been diminishing for years. Its staff also has been slashed by one-fourth since 1980, to 2,238 last year. Meanwhile, new illnesses such as repetitive motion injuries, which affect everyone from meatpackers to office workers, have soared from 50,000 cases in 1986 to 280,000 today.

A recent political pact may make Clinton's request for more labor-law enforcement more palatable. Republicans tried to whack the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) budget by a third after Chairman William B. Gould IV put some teeth back into the agency. They lost but kept its funding flat. As a result, the agency limps along with a staff of 1,900, a third less than in 1980. Its backlog of field cases has nearly doubled since 1993 alone, to 7,400 today.

Last fall, however, Democrats and Republican leaders agreed on appointees to fill board vacancies, including two conservative management lawyers who may placate employers. So more businesses may go along with the Administration. "Quite a few in the business community think that the board should function and get cases out in a timely manner," says Jerry M. Hunter, a former Republican NLRB general counsel who now works at a St. Louis management law firm.

Some business groups continue to attack enforcement budgets to undercut laws they couldn't change through legislation. Still, many employers support enforcement, if only to ensure that unscrupulous rivals don't undercut them with shoddy workplace practices. That helps employers establish a more level playing field. And employees will be more likely to receive fair treatment.

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