New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is a piece of work. This comes as no surprise to anyone who follows American politics. Earlier in her Congressional career, Stefanik stood out as a (rare) Republican moderate. She serves on the House Education and Labor Committee. When I staffed the Committee’s health and safety portfolio, Stefanik joined the Democratic majority to support legislation that would have directed OSHA to issue a workplace violence standard in a short two years. She voted in favor of the bill at the Committee markup and joined other moderate Republicans to vote for the bill on the floor.
But that was then. Times have changed. Stefanik is now best known for her born-again conversion to the cult of Trump, stridently defending the former President during his record-breaking number of impeachments, replacing Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney as Chair of the House Republican Conference, trashing the January 6 hearings and supporting the Great Replacement Theory. It’s as if she was bitten by Trump vampires and become one of them.
Her conversion to the Trump cult has also impacted her previous support of workplace safety. Recently she came out in opposition to a bill that would direct OSHA to issue a standard that would protect workers against heat within 42 months. It was essentially the same workplace violence bill that she previously supported, except it dealt with heat. Both bills would have required employers to set up and implement a plan to deal with the hazard, and both would have set a tight deadline for OSHA to act.
Even climate-denying, big business-supporting Republicans can no longer hide their heads in the sand pretending not to see the unprecedented heat waves and catastrophic fires and floods plaguing much of the country.
So what’s the problem? Even climate-denying, big business-supporting Republicans can no longer hide their heads in the sand pretending not to see the unprecedented heat waves and catastrophic fires and floods plaguing much of the country. Even they cannot be ignorant to the dangers that construction, agricultural, delivery and warehouse workers face working in dangerously high heat every day on the job.
Stefanik has essentially folded herself neatly into the old, tired traditional anti-regulatory arguments of the Republican party and their business supporters. That is unfortunate. But as a writer, I’m grateful to her because her new-found opposition to OSHA standards gives me the opportunity to deconstruct and annotate the traditional Republican boilerplate “arguments” against every OSHA standard.
Deconstructing Republican Opposition to OSHA Standards
Why is Stefanik opposing the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021 (HR 2193)? In her own words:
“I stood up for upstate New York and North Country farmers1 and small businesses against this bill that imposes a one-size-fits-all 2 Washington mandate and increases more bureaucratic red tape 3that would hurt food production 4and exacerbate the crises small businesses are already facing5 in our district. … I remain supportive of promoting safe workplaces through OSHA working collaboratively with employers to help them comply6 with the laws already in place,”
These are not original arguments from Stefanik They’re typical Republican boilerplate used to oppose every OSHA standard contemplated in the agency’s 50 year existence. But let’s take this opportunity to deconstruct and dissect those “arguments”:
- Farmers: Farmers are kind of like small businesses (see below) in the Republican bible. You know, the sturdy family farmer, bedrock of America, feeding the country and the world? Well the fact is that small family farms barely exist anymore, having been replaced by corporate agriculture. In 2017, small farms of 1-9 acres represented just 0.1% of all farmland in the U.S. Not only are small farms disappearing, but small farms that employ ten or fewer workers, aren’t even covered by OSHA. A 1970’s rider on OSHA’s appropriations that still exists today, forbids OSHA from setting foot on a small farm. All ten workers could be killed in a horrific incident, and OSHA would be required to ignore it. So no, her ode to the sanctity of small farms fails to move me. Workers in small farms are not magically immune from the hazards that workers in large farms face.
Look at every Republican or business statement or testimony opposing an OSHA standard and you will always see the phrase “one size fits all.”
- One Size Fits All: Look at every Republican or business statement or testimony opposing an OSHA standard and you will always see the phrase “one size fits all.” Their argument is that every employer is different: some big, some small, some construction, some agriculture. Some in the cool north, some in the hot south. How could one OSHA standard possibly apply to everyone? Good question. The answer: There are some situations where “one-size-fits-all” is appropriate. For example, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a big business or a small business when it comes to a trench or working on a roof. Workers need the same exact same protectons. In the case of heat or workplace violence, instead of “one size fits all,” OSHA generally requires each employer to develop a prevention program appropriate to their individual business, as long as they all include the basic elements. For example, a program for a farm will look different than a program for a warehouse — but all will require the basic elements — water, rest and, where appropriate, shade or air conditioning. A workplace violence program for an emergency room will look different than a workplace violence program for a mental health institution. And in the unlikely event that climate change never makes it to the North Country of New York which Stefanik represents, then North Country farmers won’t have to worry much about an OSHA heat standard. In other words, “one size fits all” is a tired, rotting red herring.
- Bureaucratic Red Tape: Republicans and the business community love to talk about “bureaucrats” and “red tape” because they have negative connotations to the public. Burdening a struggling mom-and-pop small business with useless “red tape” can’t be a good thing, right? But what is “red tape?” Spending time complying with useless regulations? Spending energy on paperwork instead of real work? Basically “red tape” is just a slogan used to discredit any kind of legal protections that protect workers’ lives. Yes, an OSHA heat regulation would likely require employers to spend time learning about the hazards of heat and the requirements of a regulation, and probably develop a written heat protection program. Are these useless exercises invented by faceless Washington “bureaucrats” or necessary, proven measures to protect workers’ lives? Ask any business with a successful worker protection program. They’ll likely tell you that the requirements in OSHA standards, far from being “bureaucratic red tape,” are the bare minimum needed to protect their employees.
- Hurt Food Production: Obviously a heat standard would not “hurt food production.” But it might hurt the profits of the food production industry if they are required to provide break time to workers struggling under high heat conditions, and water and shade for their dehydrated employees. This argument is similar to that used by meat industry in 2020 which threatened meat riots if they were forced by OSHA to protect their workers against COVID-19 or temporarily close facilities with major outbreaks.
- The crises small businesses are already facing: Republicans always love to look like they’re championing small businesses, because what could be more American than supporting struggling small, mom-and-pop businesses? And being small businesses, their employees are like family. They don’t need any stinkin’ bureaucratic regulations to protect family. Right? In fact, every argument Republican use to oppose any effort to help workers — minimum wage, union organizing, day care, child support, health insurance, sick leave, or health and safety protections — are always unfair to America’s struggling small businesses. Republicans consistently propose to exempt small businesses from coverage under OSHA standards, or to free them from citations the first time they are caught endangering their employees. But wait, aren’t small businesses worthy of special consideration? What about small employers who can’t afford to employ a full time health and safety expert of hire a consultant? Shouldn’t they be given a pass the first time they inadvertently violate some obscure OSHA rule? Well, OSHA’s best kept secret is its On-site Consultation Program which provides free non-enforcement inspections or “consultations” to small and medium size employers. In other words, they have the opportunity to get a free “inspection” without fear of a citation.
Using small businesses as an excuse to oppose OSHA standards. It is essentially saying that employees of small businesses do not have the same right to come home alive after work as employees of larger businesses. That dog don’t hunt.
Bottom line is that concern for small business is no excuse to oppose protections for workers. They are essentially saying that employees of small businesses do not have the same right to come home alive after work as employees of larger businesses. That dog don’t hunt.
Working collaboratively with employers is not inconsistent with strong enforcement.
- OSHA working collaboratively with employees to help them comply: Well who could argue with working collaboratively with employers or helping them comply with OSHA standards? No one. But working collaboratively with employers is not inconsistent with strong enforcement. OSHA can — and does — do both. The agency offers tons of educational and compliance assistance information on their website. And OSHA employees Compliance Assistance Specialists in every region to work cooperatively with employers to help them comply. (Stefanik’s staff should show her OSHA’s website.) Finally, large employers really don’t need OSHA to help them figure out how to comply with OSHA standards. They can hire full time health and safety staff or consultants to help them keep workers safe. And small employers, as we mentioned above, have OSHA’s on-site consultation program
So even as we take off our hardhats to mourn the dearly departed Elise Stefanik who once believed that workers deserve protection from preventable workplace hazards, let’s also thank her for teaching us important lessons in business community’s dishonesty and hostility toward the health and lives of the workers who built this country and continue to make it operate.
In fact, Rep. Stefanik, if you want to make stuff great again, let’s make OSHA great again: Give the agency the resources it needs to get to more workplaces, the authority it needs to issue standards more quickly, and the penalties it needs to be a real deterrent to employers who cut corners on worker safety. Finally, give workers the power they need to take control of their own workplace safety.
4 thoughts on “Elise Stefanik and the Republican War on Workers”
Hear, hear! Great points, across the board – especially about today’s farming industry and her attempts to protect the interests of the big guys who dominate it.
Fantastic article. Really puts in perspective her agenda and where her true loyalty lies.
Nice job, Jordan. As long as the old Republican arguments keep getting dragged out, the responses need to be refreshened. You’ve done a masterful job with it. Thanks
Applying the “one size fits all” label to an OSHA standard is a weak narrow minded response. Most businesses that have established a workers protection program will more than cover the cost/time of those efforts in workers comp. insurance savings and and by reducing or eliminating lost time injuries in general over time. Measurable reductions in recordable injuries can also lead to higher productivity and quality, reduced turnover, and greater employee satisfaction and participation in their safety program.