The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Work News for Week Ending July 24

by Brendan Coyne

Our weekly rundown of workers' rights, labor, workplace safety and related stories... @ Sago mine failures cited @ Mass. child labor laws @ Welfare 'reform' at 10 @ Frisco universal health @ DoE's health-safety office

Sago mine report finds many failures, fails to find blast cause

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The deaths caused by a blast at the Sago, West Virginia mine early this year may have been prevented had the mine operator used updated mine-shaft seals, according to the results of an independent investigation commissioned by the West Virginia government released last week. The inquiry, headed by former US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) head J. Davitt McAteer, failed to find the explosion’s cause.

According to McAteer’s report, which was three weeks late, the foam blocks intended to seal an abandoned section of the mine failed when the explosion hit, possibly because they were poorly constructed. Had they held, the report found, the twelve men who lost their lives would likely have made it out of the mine because the blast would have been contained.

The same day the report was released, MSHA mandated that mine seals be able to withstand at least 50 pounds of pressure per square inch, two-and-a-half times the previous minimum which Sago’s operator, International Coal Group (ICG), reportedly used.

Earlier this year, ICG released a much-disputed report claiming that lightening sparked the explosion. The company last Wednesday publicly denied the McAteer report’s conclusion that Sago’s seal were improperly constructed.

Mass. Legislature looks to tighten child-labor law enforcement

Companies employing workers seventeen and under in Massachusetts may soon face harsher citations for breaking state child-labor laws.

Under the child-labor reform bill, which a joint legislative committee passed last week, the attorney general’s office could pursue civil charges against employers. The measure permits civil fines of up to $250 for first-time violations, $500 for second offenses, and $2,500 for successive ones.

The actual rules of work for teens would change little under the provisions. Workers under eighteen would be barred from jobs requiring firearms and have to be under adult supervision after 8 p.m. at work.

Critics raise questions on 10th anniversary of welfare ‘reform’

While poverty continues to grow in the United States, use of a major public-assistance program has been falling, in what a public-interest research organization highlights serious problems with welfare reform enacted under the Clinton administration.

At a hearing of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities testified that steep drops in participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are not reflective of the number of those eligible. Parrott noted that child poverty is on the rise, the number of single mothers in the workforce is dropping, and TANF serves fewer "very poor" families than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

"Stated another way," she said, "more than half – 57 percent – of the decline in TANF caseloads since 1996 is due to the extent to which TANF programs [fail to] serve families that are poor enough to qualify, rather than to a reduction in the number of families who are poor enough to qualify for aid."

The hearing marked the tenth anniversary of welfare ‘reform,’ and came just weeks after the federal government enacted tougher welfare-to-work rules, sending several states scrambling to meet new compliance standards before October.

Formerly, welfare-to-work programs had been measured by the progress made since TANF’s inception. Under the new rules, the baseline will be 2005, likely lowering the amount of aid the federal government grants to states under the program, because they will lose credit for prior progress.

San Francisco approves universal healthcare plan

Starting next year, all uninsured San Francisco residents will be offered relatively cheap access to health care, regardless of employment or citizenship status.

Backed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and passed by the city’s Board of Supervisors last Tuesday, the San Francisco Health Access Plan expands existing government programs to cover everything from prescription drugs to specialist care for an estimated 82,000 uninsured city residents. Residents can sign up for the plan and pay a monthly premium assessed on a sliding scale. Enrollees will have access to health services within the city of San Francisco, including preventative care. They cannot use their plan outside the city.

The program is expected to cost around $200 million a year, $104 million of which will come from pre-existing city funds for treating the uninsured, with businesses expected to contribute around $28 million, California Healthline reported. The remaining $56 million will come from participant premiums and related payments.

Energy Dept. plan to close Safety and Health office challenged

The Department of Energy is moving forward with controversial plans to fold its Office of Environment, Safety and Health into an office tasked with overseeing security measures, the Associated Press reported last week. The move comes despite criticism from workplace-safety and government watchdogs, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Under the proposal, a copy of which was obtained and released by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) last month, the Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) office’s duties would be assumed by the Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance. Currently, ES&H is tasked with protecting the health and safety of approximately 130,000 employees of contractors doing business before the Energy Department.

Critics of the plan note that the two-year-old Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance already carries a large workload and have questioned how well it would be able to assume the new duties. The office is focused on security issues and handles an array of related duties, including managing classified information and materials, overseeing department cybersecurity, and health and safety training for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The American Society of Safety Engineers, United Steelworkers, and three former office heads separately challenged the proposal last month, warning that downgrading ES&H could threaten worker safety.

In addition, last week Senators Edward Kennedy (D–Massachusetts) and Jim Bunning (R–Kentucky) sent a letter to Energy Department head Samuel W. Bodman asking him to halt plans to dismantle ES&H until congressional and outside studies of the plan are completed.

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Digest originally appeared in the July 24, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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