Acosta’s Harwood Grant Distortions

Photo by Earl Dotter www.earldotter.com

We will be discussing the President’s proposed FY18 Budget Proposal and its effect on worker safety many times over the next few weeks and months, but I want to focus right now on Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta’s testimony yesterday defending the Administration’s proposal to eliminate the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program.

When Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) asked Acosta about why the President was proposing to eliminate the $10.5 million Harwood Program, Acosta attempted to explain that his budget proposed to add $4 million to OSHA’s federal compliance assistance budget and that would make up for elimination of the grant program. Pocan told Acosta that he would like to discuss the program more after the hearing.

Acosta’s justification for eliminating the Harwood Grants is distorted for a number of reasons:

  • They don’t do the same things:  The main purpose of adding money to the federal Compliance Assistance Budget is to add Compliance Assistance Specialists (CAS’s). This is not a bad thing. CAS’s, who are mostly located in OSHA’s Area Offices, provide assistance, mostly to employers, usually in the form of speeches and presentations to industry associations or other organizations. Their existence allows compliance officers to focus exclusively on enforcement. CAS’s are also the main staff that work on bringing in new Voluntary Protection Program participants and re-approving current VPP participants to ensure that they still deserve to be part of the program. OSHA once had a CAS in each of the agency’s 70 area offices. But because of budget cuts over the past several years (thanks to a Republican-controlled Congress), OSHA is currently able to sustain only slightly more than half of those positions.

The Susan Harwood Grants, on the other hand, provide money to non-profit organizations — colleges, labor unions, business associations, community groups — to provide direct, hands-on training to workers about the workplace hazards they face and their rights under the law.  The organizations that receive Harwood money often focus on “vulnerable” workers — like day laborers, immigrants and others who work in high hazard occupations and who are difficult to reach by OSHA. This is a very different audience than the CAS’s talk to and the programs perform a very different function. In addition, Harwood grantees are required to conduct sophisticated evaluations to ensure that their training programs are effective. Grantees also produce worker-oriented training materials that are publicly available. Some of the program’s success stories can be found here.

  • Obama Proposed Adding More Funding for Compliance Assistance than Trump is proposing: Republicans and their supporters praise the proposal to add $4 million to the Compliance Assistance account as an indication that Acosta is moving the agency from the “all confrontation” approach of the Obama administration to a more “cooperative” approach of this administration. Aside from the fact that the Obama administration was not “all confrontation,” President Obama’s last budget proposal actually proposed to add more money — $4.5 million — to the Compliance Assistance budget than the Trump budget is currently proposing.
  • Simple Math: Even if the additional funding to the federal Compliance Assistance budget provided the same benefit as the Harwood grant program, the numbers obviously don’t add up. Subtracting $10.5 million, while adding $4 million still leaves a deficit of $6.5 million.

The Harwood Grant program is a tiny, but extremely important and effective OSHA program that focuses on vulnerable workers in high hazard jobs that neither OSHA inspectors, nor Compliance Assistance Specialists are able to get to. There is no budgetary or programmatic reason to eliminate the program. We’ll be writing more about how to save the program over the next several weeks. In the meantime, if you have Harwood success stories, send them to me and/or add them to the comments.

Alex Acosta Budget Susan Harwood Worker Training Program

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