Health & Safety

When it comes to labor issues, health & safety regulations are quite literally a matter of life and death. Employers are legally responsible for providing a safe workplace for their employees, and yet workplace deaths and injuries happen every day. How well protected you are from injuries on the job varies widely depending on your state and industry. Some people are more likely to face risk than others: some of the most dangerous industries also hire workers from vulnerable populations for poverty wages. Safety inspectors across the country are understaffed and undertrained, but the current federal administration - with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress - is stripping protections when they need to be strengthened. It’s up to workers to ensure they get the protections they need from local governments.

Inconsistent and Inadequate Protection

OSHA sets federal standards for occupational health and safety, but states can form their own administrations to enforce standards and investigate violations. Twenty-one states have a state safety and health administration. Twenty-four states are only covered by federal OSHA; an additional five states have a state program that only covers public employees, leaving the rest of their workers to OSHA jurisdiction. Those state plans are inconsistent; while OSHA rates some (like Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health or DOSH) as highly effective, others struggle to meet effectiveness goals. And even highly regarded state programs like DOSH have problems with staffing - high turnover leads to less experienced inspectors and fewer inspections conducted. At the federal level, OSHA is also spread pretty thin, with staff cuts responsible for a declining number of inspections the last four years in a row.

But workers need more enforcement, not less. A recent National Employment Law Project (NELP) analysis of OSHA data found that there were 27 workplace injuries resulting in amputations or hospitalizations a day in the 29 states covered by federal OSHA - and those are injuries happening in just over half the country. Poultry and meat processing are one of the riskiest for workers, where injuries commonly occur due to a lack of machine guards or safety equipment, lack of training, or slippery floors. Employers in many construction and healthcare industries also had notably high injury rates. OSHA found that injuries may be severely underreported due to record-keeping violations and on-site medical units being used to “sow fear and distrust” among workers so that they won’t report injuries.

Not Everyone Shares the Same Risks

In Washington, we’re lucky to have the 4th lowest fatal injury rate for workers - 2.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2015 (the most recent year for which we have data). But the riskiest industries for workplace fatalities in our state are agriculture, forestry, fishing & hunting; construction; and transportation & utilities. Construction’s workplace fatality rate is double the state average, and agriculture sees 13.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers - over six times the state average. The industries with the highest risks are those that employ some of the highest numbers of Latinx workers. Latinx workers are only around 10% of the adult workforce in Washington, but nearly half of all agricultural workers are Latinx. When a marginalized group is the majority in an industry where workers are most likely to die on the job, health and safety becomes a racial justice issue.

These discrepancies hold true at the national level, as well. Many of the industries with the highest injury rates also disproportionately hire immigrants or workers of color. Agriculture and construction in particular are two of the biggest employers of Latinx workers and also have some of the highest injury rates. Worker deaths sometimes make headlines - like Randy Vasquez, the Mabton dairy worker who drowned in a manure pit, or Honesto Silva Ibarra, the Sumas blueberry picker who died after falling ill in the fields. But most fall under the radar. In 2016 there were 14 fatalities in Washington state for agriculture and related industries. Over a third of those deaths were Hispanic or Latino workers. Of the 10 occupations with the most fatalities in Washington in 2017, 3 are agriculture-related occupations, and 1 is construction - jobs that disproportionately employ Hispanic or Latino workers.

The meat and poultry industry is particularly dangerous for workers nationwide. An investigative report by Pro Publica released last year detailed many of the problems rampant in the meat and poultry industry: in addition to exploiting refugee populations and using deceptive union-busting tactics, safety concerns abound. Amputations happen with alarming frequency, workers must pay to replace protective equipment, and they get disciplined for calling out sick - even with a doctor’s note. But refugee placement agencies will often send refugees to factory towns where these conditions prevail because the jobs don’t require English speaking skills or an American education.

Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses are also more common in many industries that employ Latinx and black workers at higher rates. These are industries that also tend to have low pay and limited access to paid sick time, like transportation and warehousing, construction, and agriculture.

  The industries with the highest workplace fatality rates are also the biggest employers of Latinx workers in Washington. Selected industries in these charts are those for which we have comparable OSHA and demographic data. For the full data sets, see the  BLS fatal injury rates ,  BLS nonfatal injury and illness rates , and  census data  on race and ethnicity in NAICS sectors.

The industries with the highest workplace fatality rates are also the biggest employers of Latinx workers in Washington. Selected industries in these charts are those for which we have comparable OSHA and demographic data. For the full data sets, see the BLS fatal injury rates, BLS nonfatal injury and illness rates, and census data on race and ethnicity in NAICS sectors.

 

Weakening Protections

Meanwhile, Congress and the Department of Labor under Trump’s administration is working hard to weaken OSHA’s ability to protect workers. For instance, House Joint Resolution 83, signed by the president and enacted in April, reduces record-keeping requirements from 5 years to 6 months. Without the threat of record-keeping violations, companies won’t have an incentive to keep records, which will undermine OSHA’s ability to investigate health and safety violations. Earlier this summer, OSHA proposed a rollback of rules enacted under the Obama administration designed to protect construction workers from beryllium exposure. It’s becoming increasingly clear that workers who don’t live in a state with its own health and safety administration will be left without needed protections.

In addition to directly attacking workplace protections, the Trump administration’s policies can have more indirect effects on worker health and safety. Many labor advocates are concerned that bad employers may threaten calls to ICE to prevent workers from reporting safety violations. In fact, there have been multiple studies in the past decade showing that immigration raids lead to lower enforcement of safety regulations as well as other labor protections. It stands to reason that the dramatic increase in raids under Trump will lead to a greater erosion of safety protections, especially in industries that hire large numbers of immigrants.

Many workplace deaths and injuries are preventable, as evidenced by the fact that when Washington implemented an injury and illness prevention program, workplace injuries and deaths went down significantly. Workers in states like Washington that have a state health and safety department must advocate for stronger enforcement and safety protections for workers.


 

A living wage for all

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has remained unchanged since 2009, and is widely acknowledged as too low for a full-time worker to live on. In fact, there are only 12 counties in the US - all in rural areas - where a minimum wage worker can afford to rent a 1-bedroom apartment. House Representative Al Green has introduced HR 122, the Original Living Wage Act of 2017, in an attempt to change that (he’s introduced previous versions of the same bill in 2014 and 2015). HR 122 would raise the minimum wage to be 15% above the official poverty threshold and recalculate to rise with inflation every four years. If it were enacted this year, it would put the minimum wage at around $13.50 an hour. The bill addresses two problems with the current minimum wage: that it isn’t high enough, and that it’s stagnant. The minimum wage has much less purchasing power than it used to. By requiring the minimum wage to be readjusted every 4 years, Representative Green’s proposed bill ensures that working families won’t fall too far behind.

On the local level, Washington has long had one of the highest state minimum wages in the country, and last year voters opted to raise it again to $13.50 by 2020. Of course, we also have the first two cities to pass a $15 minimum wage: Seatac’s 2013 ballot measure applies to businesses in and around the airport, and Seattle’s 2014 city ordinance has a multi-tiered phase-in period for businesses of different sizes. [insert box here with link and blurb on What’s My Wage?]

Cities and states across the U.S. have been giving their minimum wage workers a raise with increasing frequency in the last few years. But some states have been pursuing preemption laws with equal vigor. Preemption laws are when a state makes it illegal for local governments to set the minimum wage in their own municipality. In some cases, preemption laws also repeal any local wage laws that are already on the books. This was the case in St. Louis, which raised its citywide minimum wage to $11, only to have the state legislature preempt and repeal the ordinance - reverting the city’s minimum wage to $7.70.

Preemption has even ended up in the courts. In Alabama, the majority-white state legislature blocked the majority-black city of Birmingham from raising their minimum wage to $10.10 (from the federal minimum of $7.25; Alabama does not have a state minimum). Some Birmingham workers and civil rights groups sued the state for doing so, arguing that the legislature’s actions prevented the city from addressing the racial wage gap. The case was dismissed, but plaintiffs filed an appeal in the spring, so the fight isn’t over yet.

Minimum wage fights aren’t just happening in local governments, but have reached the halls of academia. The majority of research on the minimum wage so far tells us that increasing the wage has negligible effects on employment. But research that says otherwise tends to get a lot of traction - even if it has questionable methodology - because that’s what a lot of people want to hear. It’s always a good idea to take a critical eye to new evidence, especially if it contradicts what’s already out there. It’s also a good idea to see what actual workers on the ground are experiencing after a minimum wage increase.

The path to a livable minimum wage for all will likely be a long one, but we’ve made tremendous strides since the first Fight for $15 protests, and that progress is showing no signs of slowing down. Preemption laws and misleading studies may be setbacks, but not roadblocks. Watch this space for more updates.


 

Sanctuaries

Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Workplaces: A Primer

 

What does sanctuary city mean?

Most people hear “sanctuary city” and think it means a place where people will be protected from deportation, but that’s not exactly true. There is no concrete legal definition of a sanctuary city, but generally it means a city won’t go out of its way to enforce federal immigration laws. The term has been in use since the 1980s, but means different things in different places. It might be a resolution passed by a city council, the policy of local law enforcement, or just common practice for city agencies without any official policy. Usually, being a sanctuary city includes a few things:

  1. Law enforcement will not detain someone for ICE if they would normally be released, unless ICE has a signed warrant.

  2. Law enforcement and other city agencies will not ask people about their immigration status when providing services.

  3. Law enforcement and other city agencies will not share information about an individual’s immigration status with federal immigration enforcement.

  4. City funds won’t be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Some cities (or counties) may adopt some of those practices but not others, or do other things not on this list. But it’s important to note that none of these things is illegal. The federal government cannot compel local agencies to enforce federal laws. In fact, many experts believe that ICE detainer requests (i.e., asking police to keep someone in jail after they normally would have been released) may be unconstitutional.

What Washington cities are sanctuary cities?

Many cities or municipalities that have passed sanctuary resolutions or ordinances in recent months are just formalizing policies that have already been in practice for years.

  • Seattle passed a city ordinance back in 2003, though the word “sanctuary” wasn’t used then. Mayor Murray’s declaration after the election that Seattle would remain a sanctuary city was to reaffirm the existing policy.

  • Burien passed their own ordinance earlier this year, also without the word “sanctuary”.

  • Olympia’s City Council passed a resolution declaring Olympia a sanctuary city last December.

  • King County hasn’t passed any official resolution, but the county has already had a practice of not asking people about their immigration status, and the county sheriff has said they plan to continue this practice.

  • Edmonds has taken a softer approach with a “safe city” resolution promising to fight discrimination in their community.

 

There is no comprehensive list of sanctuary cities, because “sanctuary city” is not a legal designation. It’s a collection of practices and policies, official or unofficial, to not get involved with federal immigration enforcement. There are many municipalities that have never considered publicly declaring themselves sanctuaries, but nevertheless have a practice of not honoring ICE detainer requests. This is because honoring those detainer requests makes it harder for local law enforcement to do their jobs by eroding community trust, and because the requests may be unconstitutional.

Other sanctuaries

The wave of attention on sanctuary cities has led to other movements for other sanctuaries. But what do they mean?

Sanctuary Restaurants:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and Presente.org have been promoting a Sanctuary Restaurants campaign. Participating restaurants sign an open letter to the Trump administration opposing the deportation and harassment of immigrants, and post a sign in their window stating a zero-tolerance policy for various types of discrimination. Restaurateurs can access a webinar on their rights when it comes to immigrant employees, and the campaign website provides workers with resources on their rights when reporting discrimination. Customers are encouraged to ask their favorite restaurants to join the movement. It’s not a legal designation, and sanctuary restaurants are not violating any laws, but joining the campaign is a show of solidarity with vulnerable immigrant communities and a commitment to support workers’ rights on the job.

Sanctuary Homes:

The National Domestic Workers Alliance and Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network have started a campaign for people employing domestic workers to declare themselves a “sanctuary home.” The campaign encourages people who hire nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers to talk to their employees about the election, give them time to spend with their own families, learn about and share information on their rights and legal resources, offer rides home, discuss an emergency plan, and get involved in community action for immigrant rights. But another big piece of the campaign is reminding the employers of domestic workers that they are employers, and they should engage in fair labor practices. This means a living wage, paid time off, overtime, and communicating clear expectations. People who hire nannies, housekeepers, or caregivers often don’t think of themselves as employers or their homes as workplaces, and that needs to change. For domestic employers, caring about immigrant rights and safety needs to begin with respecting labor rights at home.

Sanctuary Churches:

Sanctuary churches have been operating for decades, and are different from other sanctuary movements in that they aim to actually provide sanctuary - people at risk of deportation will live inside the church. ICE officials haven’t gone into churches to arrest anyone (yet), so they are considered safe places for someone to stay while they mount their legal battles. In addition to sheltering undocumented immigrants, sanctuary churches may help them access legal resources. Some churches will help a family seek asylum status or get power of attorney for families so that if a parent is deported, the children won’t be automatically sent to foster care. Church leaders may assemble groups to protest at detention centers, spend time near schools to discourage ICE officials from detaining someone there, or form “rapid response teams” to rush to the scene of a detention to provide support and document what happens. Usually churches in this movement ask people seeking sanctuary to do so publicly and allow their story to be told, because the goal of sanctuary churches is not only to help individual families, but to advocate for immigration reform.

What comes next?

Sanctuary cities began rising up decades ago because immigrants have been under attack for a long time. In fact, the sanctuary church movement gained a lot of traction during Obama’s presidency, when detentions and deportations went through the roof. But what’s happening now is unprecedented. ICE agents are detaining people at their workplaces, at schools, and even at hospitals. All immigrants are targeted, not just those who have committed a crime. Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, and the city of Seattle has sued the administration over the threat - a suit the Trump administration has since moved to dismiss. But how we can best support our neighbors and coworkers who are under threat is far from clear.

If you want to defend sanctuary cities or advocate for your own, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Sanctuary cities are not illegal. Local agencies cannot be compelled to do ICE’s job for them. Even the question of whether the federal government can strip funding from sanctuary cities is up for debate.

  • Immigrant populations don’t make your community less safe. In fact, studies have shown that immigrants, whether documented or not, are no more likely to commit a crime than native-born Americans, and some studies suggest immigrants are less likely to commit a crime. Horror stories of immigrant crime waves in Europe, often used to justify anti-immigrant sentiments here, are generally exaggerations, misrepresentations, or straight-up lies.

  • Your local law enforcement may already have a “sanctuary”-like policy -- even if they’d never call it that. Many agencies find that obeying potentially unconstitutional ICE detainer requests is counterproductive. If the community doesn’t trust them and people are afraid to report crimes, then they can’t do their jobs effectively.

For now, let your city officials know you support a sanctuary resolution or similar action. If you’re an employer, the National Employment Law Project has a helpful guide for what to do if ICE comes to your workplace so that you know your rights and your employees’ rights.