In July, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao joined the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding to tour the recently re-opened New Orleans Job Corps Center. Chao, along with Coordinator Donald E. Powell, highlighted the Job Corps’ many contributions in helping the region recover and rebuild after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
“In re-opening the New Orleans Job Corps Center, we honored the ongoing commitment to stand strong with the residents, especially the youth, of this great city,” said Secretary Chao.
The New Orleans Job Corps Center was re-opened after construction was completed to repair damages sustained in Hurricane Katrina. The center now offers training in carpentry, as well as health occupations such as certified nursing assistant, phlebotomy and EKG technician, and medical office support. As the center moves toward full strength, additional programs including training for security guards and painting contractors will be introduced.
“As I have said from the start of the recovery effort, diversifying the economy is key to developing a diverse regional economy and a vibrant middle class,” said Chairman Powell. “I thank Secretary Chao for being a champion for the region and supporting all local leaders seeking to build a seamless, integrated system of workforce development.”
The Secretary of Labor went on to add, “Job Corps students and staff nationwide have raised thousands of dollars for hurricane relief, provided care packages and volunteered countless hours with the American Red Cross. They also partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build 11 new homes for Hurricane Katrina victims — the largest skill-based community service project in the Job Corps’ 43-year history.”
Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Labor has dedicated resources to workforce development in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. These resources will contribute to the region’s redevelopment.
A recent grant of $15 million will benefit New Orleans youth through temporary jobs and training opportunities. The grant is part of an ongoing effort at hurricane recovery in the troubled Mississippi Delta city and throughout Louisiana.
“This $15 million grant will help at risk young people in New Orleans with valuable skills training, educational opportunities and job experience while at the same time participate in the recovery of their communities from Hurricane Katrina,” said Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.
The grant was awarded to the Louisiana Department of Labor’s Office of Workforce Development earlier this year. The goal is to provide about 1,200 temporary jobs to young people without previous job experience.
Activities under the grant program offer young people the chance to receive occupational skills training, and the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and receive post-secondary education through area community colleges.
A number of programs in the region have been very successful. For example, the River Paris WIA Program in Covenent, Louisiana recently won a U. S. Department of Labor award for “Serving Out-of-School Youth”. The program demonstrated innovate techniques in “collaborating with educators, businesses, industry and other essential partners” to train and hire young people.
Despite all the recovery efforts, the Gulf Coast Region has been plagued with problems. A number of minimum wage violations have been prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Labor, including one involving work on two navy facilities. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is still searching for a number of workers who participated in post-Katrina renovations or repairs in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The workers are entitled to back pay from sub-contractors on the projects. The projects involve work done at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport or the Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Anyone who believes that they are owed back wages for these projects can contact the nearest U.S. Department of Labor office.
Despite problems, the regions future looks bright. “The New Orleans Job Corps Center is providing worker training in key fields where skilled workers are needed to build a brighter future for the Gulf Coast,” said Secretary Chao. “The Job Corps will continue to make a lasting impact on the lives of young people in New Orleans. They, in turn, will make a difference for New Orleans.”
A final borehole at Crandall Canyon mine in Utah has failed to detect signs of human life, more than 3 weeks after 6 miners were buried some 4 miles from the mine entrance. Six boreholes have failed to reveal livable conditions, showing no space large enough to survive in, or no breathable air.
The question that many are asking in the wake of the Crandall Canyon disaster is, “What went wrong?”
Although it’s too early to point fingers, many are looking to the federal Mine Safety and Health Agency, MSHA, for answers. MSHA was founded to oversee worker safety in mines. It serves a similar function in the mining industry to that of OSHA in other sectors of the economy.
After three tragic mine accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky in early 2006, MSHA tightened regulations. The agency also hired additional mine inspectors, to check safety precautions at mines up to four times as often. Yet, even all these precautions didn’t prevent the tragedy at Crandall Canyon.
In response to those accidents, the U.S. Congress passed the MINER Act, which the U.S. Department of Labor claimed “has significantly improved safety for workers in the nation’s mines” The MINER Act was signed into law on June 15, 2006 and introduced a number of significant changes in the way the mining industry does business.
“The MINER Act was the most significant federal mine safety law in nearly 30 years, and we at MSHA are fully committed to putting its protections in place for America’s miners,” said Richard E. Stickler, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, when the act was introduced. “MSHA has made great strides in implementing the MINER Act in the past year, and we are continuing to meet or beat the deadlines set by the act.”
Fourteen months later, Stickler is heading up the rescue efforts at the Crandall Canyon mine.
Still, the MINER Act did introduce some improvements. Under this legislation, 11 family liaisons were trained to respond to accidents nationwide. Three of them were quickly routed to Crandall Canyon in the hours after the disaster occurred.
Some of the changes were more technical. Under the act, MSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard, an ETS to increase the strength of seals in underground coal mines to 120 pounds per square inch (or psi). The ETS also requires that the environment behind the 50 psi seals be monitored and maintained inert. The MINER Act set a time limit for that ETS to be established. In fact, the MSHA delivered the ETS seven months earlier than required.
One of the most important changes under the MINER Act was to establish higher maximum penalties for flagrant violations. By July 2007, MSHA had already issued 13 citations for repeat offenders under this provision. One of those fines went to a coalmine operator who did not report a serious accident within 15 minutes.
Sources at the MSHA point out that coal mining is a hazardous occupation. Probably all the safety measures in the world wouldn’t prevent all accidents. They point out that mining accidents occur throughout the world, not just in the U.S. In July and August, two high-profile mining accidents occurred in China. In the first, 181 miners were lost when a dyke collapsed and the mine near the Wen River in Eastern China was flooded. U.S. sources point out that there was no effort, by the Chinese government or by mine owners, to recover the victims. They were simply presumed dead and their families paid “death premiums.”
Yet, the U.S. seems to have had more than its share of mining accidents lately.
In January 2006, there was an explosion in the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia that trapped 13 miners for nearly two days. Although survivors launched heroic efforts, only one of the 13 trapped miners survived. That same month, a fire at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Melville, West Virginia poured smoke into the miner’s escape route, killing two people.
Again in May 2006, a methane explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Kentucky killed five workers. In response, MSHA hired additional mine safety inspectors, tightened regulations and made other changes. Still, critics argue that those changes clearly were not enough.
Events at Crandall Canyon were especially tragic, in part because there were initial hopes that the 6 missing miners would be discovered alive. The first reports indicated that the men might be trapped in an area with sufficient air to survive. There were emergency stores of food in the mine, and potable water. Tragically, the men were never found.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently announced two grants totaling more than $1.94 million to benefit workers in Massachusetts and Missouri. The emergency grants will help provide a number of job resources to workers who are unemployed due to plant closings. In addition, the DOL has ruled that these workers are eligible for additional assistance under TAA, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
Displaced workers in Massachusetts and Missouri will receive a total of $1,940,459 under the two grants. Just last month, the DOL announced a similar grant to benefit workers in Maine, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
The first National Emergency Grant goes to workers in Fall River, Massachusetts affected by the closure of the Quaker Fabric Corp. The $617,515 grant was awarded by the DOL on July 25, 2007.
The second grant, of $1.3 million, goes to workers affected by 3 plant closures in Missouri. The funds will benefit workers from the Briggs & Stratton plant in Rolla, Missouri, the Affinia Brake Parts plant in Cuba, Missouri, and AMF Billiards and Games, Inc. in Bland, Missouri. Altogether, 967 workers who were displaced by these plant closures will benefit from the grant, which has an initial release of $536,069 and was announced in July 2007.
Under the National Emergency Grants, workers will have access to services not covered under the TAA program. Services offered under the grant include assessment, career counseling and job search assistance.
TAA assistance includes career counseling and job training. In most cases, displaced workers are not able to find another well-paying job in a similar field. TAA partially offsets the loss of wages and tuition costs while workers learn new skills to compete in the marketplace. If the workers accept a lower-paying job, TAA provides supplementary payments to partially offset lost wages for up to 24 months.
Quaker Fabric Corp announced its plans to shutter the Fall River, Massachusetts plant on July 2, 2007. More than 900 employees will be out of work, due to this decision. According to company sources, Quaker Fabric began operations in 1945 as a small family-owned fabric mill. Today it is “one of the largest producers of Jacquard upholstery fabric in the world and one of the undisputed leaders in the $2-billion-plus U.S. upholstery fabric industry.” The company also produces and sells specialty yarns, which are then sold to other fabric manufacturers. On its website, the company still lists its headquarters as Fall River, Massachusetts. Quaker Fabric is a publicly traded company with the Nasdaq symbol QFAB.
“This $617,515 grant will provide these workers with re-employment services to help them start new careers in growing industries,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.
Briggs & Stratton announced the closing of its Rolla plant in September 2006, putting 678 workers on the unemployment line. Briggs & Stratton is a well-known manufacturer of lawnmowers and engine parts. The company’s mission is to “create superior value by developing mutually beneficial relationships with our customers, suppliers, employees and communities. We will enhance our brand equity and leadership position by developing, manufacturing at low cost, marketing and servicing high value power for a broad range of power products. In pursuing this mission, we will provide power for people worldwide to develop their economies and improve the quality of their lives and, in so doing, add value to our shareholders’ investment.” The company is publicly traded under the Nasdaq symbol BGG.
According to the website, Briggs & Stratton is the world’s largest manufacturer of air-cooled power engines for outdoor equipment.
In October 2006, Affinia Group, Inc. announced that it would close the Affinia Brake Parts factor and dislocate 213 workers by closing its Cuba, Missouri plant. The company’s vow to become “faster, smarter, leaner” in 2007 apparently did not include these employees.
In May 2007, AMF Billiards & Games put 76 workers out to pasture with the closure of its plant in Bland, Missouri. AMF bills itself as the “world’s largest owner and operator of bowling centers, and a leader in the production of bowling and billiards products.” The company prefers the term “exploring strategic alternatives” to “plant closure”. However, the employees were give 60 days notice that they will be unemployed.
Between August 2006 and May 2007, Rapid Response sessions were conducted at all three plant locations to inform workers of their options in collecting unemployment insurance and TAA assistance.
National Emergency grants are a previous-approved budget item granted in specific situations, by the U.S. Secretary of Labor. In order to qualify for emergency grants, states must show that they have the ability to meet specific guidelines.
Fatal accidents are lower than at any time since 1992, according to a new report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics entitled Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2006. Across all market segments, workplace fatalities decreased to 3.9 per 100,000 employees, or less than 4/10 of one percent. This was down from 4.0 per 100,000 in 2005, and is the lowest rate of workplace fatalities reported since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began keeping records.
In all, 5,703 people were killed at work in 2006, compared to 5,734 in 2005. The preliminary report will be updated in April 2008.
In a 17-page report released in July, the BLS notes that the number of fatal work injuries among those under 25 years old decreased 9%. In 2005, 568 young workers died. In 2006 that number was just 516.
Fatal injuries were also down among Hispanic workers, from 4.9 per 100,000 to 4.7 per 100,000. However, that still leaves the fatality rates for Hispanic workers well above that of the general population. In addition, the total number of fatalities among Hisptanic workers increased, because the number of Hispanic workers increased. There were 937 fatalities among Hispanic workers, the highest number on record.
Fatalities among self-employed workers were down 11% to an all-time low.
There were some notable exceptions to the downward trend. Fatalities among coal miners more than doubled in 2006, due in part to three tragic accidents during the year. Those included a January 2006 explosion in the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia that trapped 13 miners for nearly two days killing 12 of them. That same month, a fire at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Melville, West Virginia poured smoke into the miner’s escape route, killing two people. In May 2006, a methane explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Kentucky killed five coalminers.
Deaths from fires and explosions were up 26%, from 159 to 210. So were deaths from exposure to chemical or hazardous materials, up 12% from 126 to 153 in 2006.
Aircraft fatalities were up 44%, in part due to the Comair crash in August 2006. In that tragedy, an airliner crashed after taking off from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky. The crash resulted in 49 deaths, with only the co-pilot surviving. The accident revealed that the accident occurred due to an unlit general aviation strip that was too short for the larger commercial aircraft.
Overall, 215 died in aircraft-related workplace accidents in 2006. The number of airplane deaths varies wildly, from 426 in 1994 to 149 in 2005.
If flying was more hazardous in 2006, driving was safer. Highway fatalities remain the most common cause of death in the workplace, accounting for 25% of all fatal injuries. Still, the number of highway fatalities fell 8% to 1,329 in 2006. Non-highway deaths (those that occur on farms or industrial property) were about the same, while pedestrian fatalities in the workplace also diminished.
In recent years, homicides in the workplace have become an increasing concern. However, the most recent figures show a record low in those numbers, as well. The rate of workplace homicides in 2006 was just 50% of the rate in 1994, the year with the most murders in the workplace. The number of workplace homicides decreased to 516 in 2006.
The number of workers fatally injured by falling objects continued a 3-year downward trend, with the 583 fatalities representing a 4% decline from 2005.
“We believe our initiatives are working. However, even one fatality is one too many. To end fatalities, injuries and illnesses on the job, nothing is more effective than prevention. We remain committed to helping all employers protect their most valuable resource — their employees.”
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently filed suit against Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. in Dallas to recover about $3 million in back wages for more than 500 workers engaged in poultry processing. The complaint was filed with the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division.
Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. is the largest chicken processing company in the nation, operating 34 plants through out the country. The company acquired Gold Kist in late 2006, and now has consolidated annual net sales of $7.4 billion.
“Ensuring that low-wage workers are paid all the wages they have rightfully earned is a top priority of the Wage and Hour Division,” said Paul DeCamp, the agency’s administrator. “This legal action involves more than $3 million in back wages for more than 500 employees, and is intended to ensure that the company complies with federal overtime and recordkeeping laws in the future.”
The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division launched the investigation after receiving a complaint. The suit alleges that Pilgrim’s Pride failed to pay overtime to employees since August 6, 2005.
Most of the overtime violations resulted because the company failed to pay the employees for time spent donning and removing protective clothing required for their jobs. During the investigation, despite prodding from the DOL, Pilgrim’s Pride made no attempt to comply with the recordkeeping and overtime provisions of the FLSA.
The Fair Labor Standard Act requires that most U.S. employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage, which is currently $5.85 per hour. The FLSA also mandates that employees must be paid 1.5 times their usual hourly rate for each hour over 40 in a single work week.
Many employers mistakenly believe that any worker paid by salary is exempt from overtime. The FLSA does provide a number of exemptions to the overtime law for bona fide executive, administrative, professional and outside sales jobs. In general, employees must meet job duty and salary tests, to be exempt from overtime.
The U. S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division collected more than $171 in back wages for some 246,000 employees in 2006. Thos wages were a result of 31,987 “compliance actions” in 2006.
This is just the most recent in a wave of minimum wage violations since the federal rate was increased on July 24, 2007 to $5.85 per hour.
In August, five jointly-operated restaurants in Long Island, New York were ordered to pay almost $1 million to 191 low-wage workers. The employees had been forced to work long hours for wages less than the minimum wage, without overtime pay. The court ordered that if the employers did not pay up, their restaurants could be sold and the proceeds used to pay the employees.
In late July, the U.S. Department of Labor forced Desert Plastering, Inc., a Las Vegas Nevada firm, to pay nearly $1.2 million in back pay to 1060 employees. The feds found that Desert Plastering had not paid required overtime to lathers, finishers, plasterers and estimators who worked up to 58 hours per week.
In early July, the U.S. Department of Labor forced 107 subcontractors of KBR, Inc. of Virginia to pay some $1.5 million in back wages and benefits for up to 2,600 workers who participated in the Hurricane Katrina recovery project. The construction workers were involved in repairs to the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport Mississippi or the Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Labor is still searching for some of the workers involved in that case. Anyone who believes that they are owed back wages for these projects can contact the nearest U.S. Department of Labor office. The average payment per worker in that case was $616.