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Working Together to Ensure Telecom Workers’ Pay and Safety

cell tower

Photo credit: Erin Patterson, OSHA

Since their creation, the department’s Wage and Hour Division and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration have sought to ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and that employers provide safe and healthful working conditions for their workers. The workplace, however, has changed in recent decades, making it more challenging to pursing our fundamental missions.

In the 21st-century workplace, the “fissuring” or breaking apart of the employment relationship between workers and the businesses that benefit from their labor has caused us to reevaluate and refocus our strategies for protecting worker rights. We have to direct our efforts where the problems are largest, where workers are least likely to exercise their legal rights and where we can have an impact on compliance.

An example of an industry in which this shift has affected the work of both the Wage and Hour Division and OSHA is in telecommunications – specifically, the building and servicing of cell-phone towers.

Before the 1980s, communications towers were put up and maintained by a small and highly specialized sector in the industry. Over the past 30 years, however, the exponential growth within this industry has led to a corresponding spike in the demand for this work.

Major industry players − who in the past may have had the capacity to build and service their own towers − now largely contract this function to other businesses. And these contracts are themselves often subject to multiple layers of subcontracting, so that the workers who actually weld the steel girders into place or climb the completed towers are many layers removed from the lead/main companies receiving the benefit of their labor − and equally distant from the concrete protections of a clear, easily discernable and direct employment relationship.

There are troubling consequences for workers. Notably, there is a lack of coordination and too many situations where no one major company accepts direct responsibility for the health and safety of these workers; instead, passing the buck to the lowest level of the fissured structure, with sometimes fatal consequences.

Workers’ wages are also affected.

This highly fissured industry results in profit margins stretched so thin that there’s downward pressure on wages, and often, unintentional or deliberate wage violations – such as a failure to pay for all hours worked; paying straight-time rates for overtime hours in cash, off the books; the use of piece-rate schemes that short workers both the minimum wage and overtime; and misclassifying employees as independent contractors.

How do we respond? We’re working with each other, and with employers, to identify potential problem areas where labor violations could occur – to stop them before a worker goes without a paycheck, or worse. Our investigators can’t be in every workplace, and in the telecom industry specifically, we can’t possibly cover all of the territory.

In the Wage and Hour Division, we are focusing our efforts at the top – identifying entities that have influence over multiple layers below them in the supply chain, in the contracting stream, through branding pressure, or otherwise, so that we may leverage those entities’ ability to influence compliance throughout the layers. We’re doing this through a combination of enforcement, outreach, and partnerships with employers.

OSHA is using similar strategies. For example, we’re collaborating with the National Association of Tower Erectors and other industry stakeholders to ensure that every communication tower employer understands their responsibility to protect workers performing this extremely hazardous work. And in October 2014, we met with the Federal Communications Commission and leaders in the telecommunications industry to discuss efforts to prevent cell tower fatalities.

Additionally, our colleagues in the Employment Training Administration have established the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program, a competency-based apprenticeship program that provides worker training on quality and safety. The good news is that our combined efforts to deal with tower safety issues appear to be having some impact. So far, we have seen two tower fatalities this year, compared to 13 and 14 in each of the last two years.

We are looking for every opportunity to engage with responsible businesses, leveraging market forces to achieve compliance. From a strategic standpoint, encouraging industry accountability and compliance is key to ensuring workers are paid what they are legally entitled to, and that they can return home safely to their families at the end of the day.

Dr. David Weil is the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, and Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

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