Workplace safety bill proposedThe current mechanism...

Newswatch ... on federal workers

August 14, 1991|By Kate McKenna | Kate McKenna,States News Service

Workplace safety bill proposed

The current mechanism established to provide safe and healthy workplaces for federal workers lacks teeth, according to Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., who has proposed a measure that would lead to a major overhaul of the existing system.

"Civil servants perform some of the most hazardous work done in America -- from workers poisoned by toxic cyanide foam to customs inspectors threatened daily by inadequate protection from fleeing criminals," said Sikorski.

"They have a right to expect that the serious hazards they face will be rectified as quickly as possible," added Sikorski, a member of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and author of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1991.

The bill would strengthen federal authority to require safe workplaces by providing an official platform for federal workers who see health and safety problems, and give more punch to the agency in charge of such investigations and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation calls for creationof an independent "special prosecutor" within the Department of Labor in charge of OSHA enforcement. The holder of that office, who would be appointed by the president pending approval, could not be fired except for just cause.

The bill also would enable a federal worker to go to court in order to compel action regarding a specific complaint, and allow similar appeal routes for the agencies.

In addition, the legislation would create labor-management committees throughout the government at every workplace to facilitate inter-office communication. Recent findings by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have pointed to OSHA's lack of authority in enforcing compliance once a violation has been shown -- no citations, penalties or other enforcement mechanisms. Fines may be levied, but there is no guarantee that any agency will act to correct underlying problems, said a Sikorski aide.

"This is clearly inadequate," Sikorski said. "OSHA must be granted the statutory authority to compel agency compliance."

The Occupational Health and Safety Act would allow OSHA to issue a citation to the agency after investigations reveal a violation. The agency would be allowed to contest the citation or the proposed method to abate the hazard to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

In addition, any employee aggrieved by agency noncompliance is granted a cause of action in federal district court to compel the Secretary of Labor to act on it, compel the agency to comply with a review commission order or compel the commission to carry out its duties under this act.

"Normally, employees could go through their unions, but unions aren't everywhere," said a Sikorski aide. "This sets up a more official chain of command for these grievances to get immediate action." An obscure Internal Revenue Service statute is hurting a very select group of federal workers -- at last count about 75, in fact -- but that's enough to spark the introduction of a measure to correct the matter by a concerned member of Congress.

Although it's been years since the passage of the controversial Tax Reform Act of 1986, some of the kinks have yet to be worked NTC out, according to Rep. Richard T. Schulze, R-Pa., who points to a provision that applied to federal workers stationed overseas in 1986 and 1987.

"This bill will ensure that tax treatment, which was afforded to certain federal employees stationed overseas during tax years 1986 and 1987, will be extended retroactively to a group of federal employees, also living overseas at that time, who were presumably forgotten by the Congress in the Tax Reform Act of 1986," Schulze said.

Originally, federal employees on assignment outside the United States who received housing allowances and purchased residences were allowed to deduct mortgage interest and real estate taxes associated with these mortgages. But those tax-free allowances were abandoned in 1983.

The "controversy and confusion" that resulted from this reversal caused the IRS to announce that this new position would be applied to ministers on Jan. 1, 1985, and to uniformed service members on Jan. 1, 1987, Schulze said. No guidance was provided for other federal employees.

Things were completely muddled after a new provision on this matter was added to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, said Schulze, who believes his bill will bring the issue to rest.

"The IRS effectively penalized this group of federal employees because Congress inadvertently overlooked them in the 1986 Tax Reform Act," Schulze said. "It is our responsibility to ensure fair treatment is given."

He added that the matter can be settled by ensuring this small group of federal workers the same tax treatment their colleagues received during the same time.

The legislation would provide transitional relief for approximately 75 federal workers who took a deduction for mortgage interest and real estate taxes for tax years 1986 and 1987.

The bill also would allow those who paid the tax for those years to file for a refund based on the new rule.

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