STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - August 05, 2009)
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By Mr. REID (for Mr. Kennedy (for himself, Mrs. Murray, Mr. Dodd, Mr. Harkin, Mr. Bingaman, Mr. Sanders, Mr. Brown, Mr. Casey, Mr. Merkley, Mr. Franken, Mr. Leahy, Mr. Akaka, Mrs. Boxer, Mr. Feingold, Mr. Durbin, Mr. Schumer, Ms. Stabenow, Mr. Lautenberg, Mr. Menendez, and Mr. Whitehouse)):
S. 1580. A bill to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to expand coverage under the Act, to increase protections for whistleblowers, to increase penalties for certain violators, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, today I am pleased to introduce the Protecting America's Workers Act. Almost 40 years ago, Congress set out to guarantee a safe workplace for all Americans. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was landmark legislation that has dramatically improved the well-being of working men and women.
Since then, the annual job fatality rate has dropped from 18 deaths per 100,000 workers to less than four. Thousands of lives have been saved each year. These are not abstract numbers--they represent thousands of families who have been spared the pain and heartache of losing a loved one on the job.
We are enormously proud of the progress we have made, but we also know that too many workers continue to face needless dangers in the workplace. In 2007, almost 5,500 workers were killed on the job and 4 million other workers became ill or were injured. Fifteen workers still die on the job every day, and nearly 11,000 who are injured or become ill because of dangerous conditions.
We now have strong partners in the White House and at the Department of Labor who are committed to making our workplaces safer. But they need action by Congress as well. That is why today we are reintroducing the Protecting America's Workers Act, to take concrete steps to address many of the failures of the existing law.
First, this legislation expands the coverage of the current job safety laws to protect the millions of public employees and transportation workers who are not covered by these laws. In Massachusetts alone, 350,000 public sector workers lack the protections granted by the federal workplace safety law.
Our bill also protects workers who speak up about unsafe conditions on the job, by updating OSHA's whistleblower provisions. OSHA inspectors can't be in every workplace, every day. We must rely on workers who have the courage to come forward when they know their employer is cutting corners on safety. This legislation makes good on the promise to stand by those workers and guarantee they don't have to sacrifice their jobs in order to do the right thing.
In addition, the legislation gives workers and their families and representatives a seat at the table on safety issues. It includes sensible reforms to ensure that victims and their families have a right to talk to OSHA before a citation issues, to obtain copies of important documents, to be informed about their rights, and to have their voices heard before OSHA accepts a settlement that lets an employer off the hook for endangering workers.
Finally, a critical element of this bill is the increase in penalties on employers who turn their backs on the safety of their workers. Too many employers in our country blatantly ignore the law, and too often they are not held accountable. They pay only minimal fines, which they treat as just another cost of doing business.
Last year, my office issued a report that showed that the median penalty for a workplace fatality was only $3,675. In other words, in cases investigated by OSHA where workers were killed on the job, half of all employers were fined $3,675 or less. Workers' lives are obviously worth far more than that. We know this administration will do better, but it needs our help.
The bill makes reasonable increases in civil penalties--especially in the most serious cases. It also creates a strong criminal penalty, including the possibility of felony charges and significant prison terms. These changes will create the deterrence we need so that employers will think twice before they gamble with workers' lives to save a few dollars. We need to send a strong message that it is unacceptable to treat workers as expendable or disposable.
Earlier this year a brave young woman, Tammy Miser, testified before our Labor Committee about her brother Shawn, who was killed in an explosion at the Hayes Lemmerz manufacturing plant in Huntington, Indiana in 2003. We can't bring Shawn back and we can't ease Tammy's pain at the loss of her beloved brother. But we can stand with her as she pursues her life's work since then of speaking out for the right of every worker to come home safely at the end of the day. I urge my colleagues to join me in honoring the millions of hardworking Americans who deserve real protection by supporting the Protecting America's Workers Act.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, the promise of America will never be fulfilled as long as justice is denied to any of our fellow citizens. We have made remarkable progress in the long march towards equal opportunity and equal justice for all Americans, but this is no time for complacency. Civil rights remains the unfinished business of America. Millions of our people are still shut out of the American dream solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act brings us closer to fulfilling the promise of America for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens, and I am proud to join Senators Merkley, Collins, and Snowe today in introducing this important legislation.
ENDA reflects the bedrock American principle that employees should be judged on the basis of job performance, not prejudice. It prohibits employers from making decisions about hiring, firing, promotions, or compensation based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It makes clear that there is no right to preferential treatment, and that quotas are prohibited.
While some states have taken this important step to guarantee fair treatment in the workplace, ENDA is necessary to guarantee these rights for all. It is unacceptable that in our country in 2009, it is legal anywhere to judge people on who they are, not what they can accomplish. This legislation will right this historic wrong.
ENDA has broad, bipartisan support. It reflects non-discrimination principles already in place at some our country's largest employers. In the past, this legislation has been endorsed by a broad religious coalition, civil rights leaders, and distinguished Americans from both parties.
I am proud to join my colleagues today in bringing us one step closer to our ideal of a nation free from prejudice and injustice. I look forward to doing all I can to pass this important legislation, and I urge my colleagues to support us.
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