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BUSINESSES HAVE A RARE opportunity to gain an ear in the Labor Department.
We see the proposal for a Labor Department liaison with the business community as a chance for employers to educate the government about business issues and needs, including the controversial federal ergonomics standard that so many employers oppose. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has extended an olive branch to employers, but now they need to respond in the same spirit of cooperation if progress is to be made.
As we report this week, Ms. Herman last week announced her plan for a special liaison to employers, "to have someone available to relate to the business community" on various issues, including the proposed ergonomics standard. While details of the position have yet to be defined, we are encouraged by this overture to the business community.
This proposal comes after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in January held a summit in Chicago to engage employers, labor unions, researchers and consultants in a dialogue about ergonomics issues. We were impressed then with OSHA's effort to solicit the input of employers and others on this important issue. Clearly, it learned from its initial mistake in promulgating a proposed standard in a vacuum.
Ms. Herman's proposed liaison seems to be evidence that the department is still willing to listen to employers.
This is a chance for employers not only to provide input on ergonomics and other safety issues, but also to seek more reasonable regulation of other areas within the Labor Department's purview, including regulation of pension and welfare benefits.
Indeed, one of the problems that not just the Labor Department but many federal agencies have in developing rules is the lack of everyday practical experience with business issues.
Back in the late 1980s, for example, the Labor Department embarrassed itself when it proposed requiring employers with 401(k) plans with loan programs to extend those programs to former employees. The proposal ignored the very practical issue of how employers would get former employees-who no longer drew a paycheck from the company-to pay back the loans. Amid much employer protest, the Labor Department withdrew the proposal and admitted it goofed.
A liaison to the business community, who would be charged with discussing issues and gaining input before formal rules are proposed, could greatly improve the regulatory process and reduce the likelihood of rules drafted out of ignorance.
We hope employer groups reach out to the hand the Labor Department is offering them. They have nothing to lose and much to gain.