U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman backed away from a letter her department sent to a Texas company, saying employers are liable for workplace health and safety violations of employees working from home.
Herman told Fox News Channel's business editor Neil Cavuto the letter never was intended to be a definitive interpretation of the federal government's workplace safety policy. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no plans to start inspecting private homes, she said.
The letter, which advised a small financial firm planning to have some of its staff work from home, set off a flurry of protests from business advocates, who maintained that the government was overstepping its regulatory bounds.
They fear that OSHA, the arm of the federal government charged with regulating employers' safety standards and practices, is asserting the right to dictate working conditions of home-based telecommuters, making employers responsible for every creaky step, overloaded electrical socket and ergonomically-offensive desk chair inside the employee's home.
While distancing herself from the letter, Herman said she was pleased the controversy sparked a much-needed debate over what level of responsibility private industries should have for home-based employees, as well as what role the government should play in regulating job safety, particularly in an era when the concept of the "workplace" is rapidly changing for millions of Americans.
The OSHA letter said that employers should exercise "reasonable diligence to identify in advance the possible hazards associated with particular home work assignments and should provide the necessary protection through training, personal protective equipment, or other controls appropriate to reduce or eliminate the hazard."
Although the department withdrew the letter, OSHA said the Texas firm "got the guidance they needed."
Some business advocates are scratching their heads trying to figure out exactly what OSHA's standards are.
"They have tried to kill a bad story, but their policy hasn't changed," said Patrick Cleary of the National Assoc. of Manufacturers. "Frankly, I think this is their view of what the law is."
The point, Cleary said, is that OSHA has not clearly explained an employer's liability. Some have suggested the lack of clear rules could have a chilling effect on the move towards home-based work.
By most estimates, there are some 20 million Americans telecommuting each day, a trend that has accelerated dramatically in the past few years, driven partly by technological advances and the changing nature of work.
Some suspect that OSHA's lack of concise language to deal with the issue reflects how the trend has outpaced the government's ability to adapt its focus.
Private companies, however, have been struggling with telecommuting issues for some time, according to observers. Particularly in a tight labor market, giving an employee the chance to work from home can be critical in attracting and retaining talented workers.
"You bet everyone wants to protect their workers," said Gail Martin of the International Telework Association & Council. "We don't have enough of them."
Charles Schwab in San Francisco is one company that has implemented a formal telecommuting program. Some 500 to 1000 employees work from home, according to Jim Macaluso, manager of the Schwab program.
Schwab issues ergonomic advice to all employees working from home, as well as a safety checklist for the employee's workspace.
"We thought all along there were responsibilities of the employer," Macaluso said. "So we wanted to provide those things from a productivity standpoint, as well as a moral standpoint."