By MALLORY GRUBEN
A bill to enact tougher penalties for workplace safety violations is on its way to Oregon Governor Tina Kotek’s desk after a bit of committee room drama and a failed Republican attempt to gut a key feature of the bill.
On May 15, the Oregon House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 592A with a 35-23 vote. All Democrats and one Republican voted yes. It previously passed the Senate 20-10 with bipartisan support.
SB 592A will increase Oregon OSHA’s minimum fine from $50 to $1,116, and the maximum for a serious violation to $15,625. It will add $20,000 minimum and $50,000 maximum fine for a workplace fatality linked to a safety violation. The bill also requires an annual report to lawmakers about penalties, inspections, and appeals, and it requires comprehensive workplace inspections after a work-related fatality caused by a safety violation, or three serious violations in one year. It was this year’s top legislative priority for Oregon AFL-CIO.
GOP lawmakers walk out
At one point, state representatives considered an amendment proposed by Republicans to remove the parts of the bill that would increase fines. Opponents argued that the increase was too much too quickly, and it could shutter small private businesses with “five-figure fines” for “inconsequential violations.”
Supporters countered that increasing fines is necessary to stay “as effective as federal OSHA,” a directive the state must meet in order to continue to be allowed to run its own workplace safety enforcement program. Right now, Oregon’s average penalties are the lowest anywhere in the nation.
The amendment came on the heels of a dramatic moment during public testimony for the bill in the House Business and Labor Committee. Oregon AFSCME lobbyist Odalis Aguilar shared a story about Pete Neuman, a Benton County employee who was killed on the job by a faulty logging skidder. But just seconds into the testimony, Rep. Anna Scharf, a Polk County Republican, walked out, and the hearing was put on pause. Scharf later told the Labor Press that she has personal ties to the worker who was killed: He was her best friend’s husband and her brother’s coworker. Scharf’s brother was the crew member who found Neuman the day he died.
Scharf said there was no way for AFSCME to know her personal ties to the story, so she doesn’t think they intentionally picked that example to hurt her. But she said the testimony was inappropriate because it “wasn’t their story to tell.” Scharf said the same story had already been used in testimony on a previous bill, and was a poor example for SB 592A, because it focuses on a public employer, whose fines would be paid by taxpayer money.
“I was not going to sit in committee and listen to that very painful story and have her use that story to sell a bill that was going to have no impact on the entity that was responsible for the accident,” Scharf said.
The committee tabled the hearing, and lawmakers asked that Oregon AFSCME forego coming back to give the testimony in person and instead submit a written statement. When the union returned the next day to finish speaking, none of the Republican members of the committee attended.
“It was salt in the wound,” Scharf said. “They didn’t need to come back. The bill was going to pass with or without them, with or without our (Republican) votes.”
Representatives of Oregon AFSCME were not available for comment, but Oregon AFL-CIO addressed the concerns in a news release about the bill: “We understand that hearing about workplace deaths and injuries is hard for legislators, but hearing from advocates on all sides of an issue is a critical part of the legislative and democratic process,” said AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor. “We are bolstered that the passage of SB 592A will mean that there are far fewer of these stories that will have to be shared going forward.”
SB 592A now goes on to the Governor to sign into law where it will take effect immediately.