Thursday, January 06, 2000

Home workplace plan dropped




Gannett News Service and The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — After a day and a half of unrelenting criticism that the family-friendly, traffic-reducing and flexible work hours offered by telecommuting would be quashed by federal regulations because of an arcane opinion letter, the Labor Department backtracked Wednesday.

        In effect, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said: Never mind.

        In a conference call with reporters, Ms. Herman said she is formally withdrawing a Nov. 15, 1999, opinion letter to a Houston credit agency.

        The letter said companies are obligated to ensure a safe workplace to salespeople who work out of their homes using laptop computers.

        Business groups and members of Congress quickly rallied in opposition. On Wednesday, they hailed the reversal.

        “Twenty million American telecommuters can work without fear of intrusive government regulation or employer inspections,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

        However, angry Republicans in Congress said they still plan to investigate the circumstances surrounding the department's actions.

        Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester, chairman of the House Workforce Committee's panel on employer-employee relations, said he wants Ms. Herman to give Congress all memos and other documentation relating to the advisory letter sent to the company regarding at-home workers.

        “There's a fine line separating big government from Big Brother,” Mr. Boehner said. “Americans deserve to know the full extent of this intrusive scheme.”

        Ms. Herman said there would be no change in her department's assertion that employers must inspect dangerous workplaces such as those created by people who make fireworks in their homes.

        The letter Ms. Herman withdrew also mentioned employer obligations to inspect welding equipment, portable electrical equipment and compressed gas cylinders.

        Those citations had some business experts scratching their heads and wondering how the Labor Department could link those types of blue-collar jobs with an inquiry involving salesmen who use laptops.

        Ms. Herman agreed the federal government needs to adjust its policies toward a changing work force.

        The Labor Department, Commerce Department and Small Business Administration will form a task force to examine coordinated policies on telecommuter issues.

        “We need to examine the new rules of the road,” said Ms. Herman, indicating she will hold national meetings with business and labor groups to start “a national dialogue” on the issue.

       



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