Labor Day '95: A Season of Change

Once again, Labor Day has arrived. For many Americans, Labor Day is a long weekend that marks the end of the summer season, the last weekend for a barbecue or a trip to the beach or mountains before the kids return to school.

Official Labor Day observances involve picnics and parades in honor of working men and women and the struggles and gains for improved wages, hours, and working conditions. It also is a time to review the changes in the past year, as this 101st Labor Day comes amidst a season of change. Many things have changed since my last Labor Day message.

California's workplaces have become safer. Our latest data showed that non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses have decreased to an all-time low in California. According to the last Non-Fatal Occupational Illnesses and Injuries Census for California, work-related injuries and illnesses per full-time workers dropped to 9.0, the lowest rate since we have tracked workplace injury and illness rates.

As reported in this edition of DIR Bulletin, we have the added good news that workplace fatalities declined over 8 percent last year. In addition to this decline in the total fatalities, assaults and violent acts no longer represented the leading cause. There are several possible reasons for the decline, such as increased attention leading employers to take threats seriously and enhanced security precautions in accordance with Cal/OSHA's Guidelines on Workplace Security. We sometimes can be tempted to allow sensational events to lead us to believe that violent incidents are still growing, but we must recognize that the real data prove the opposite trend.

DIR has continued to implement the 1993 workers' compensation reforms. To date, employers have enjoyed a 32 percent reduction in the minimum rate for workers' compensation coverage. Effective at the beginning of 1995, the minimum rate law was repealed, allowing the free market to set insurance premiums. On July 1, injured workers received the second of three increases in temporary disability benefit increases, again proving that the reforms have been beneficial to both employer and labor interests.

To improve things further, the Division of Workers' Compensation has made significant process in reducing its backlog of disability ratings. The DWC also is reorganizing its field offices with an eye toward economy and focusing resources where workloads most demand them. Finally, the DWC has initiated a comprehensive review of its regulations with the objective of simplification. The division expects to complete the process by the end of the year and then present regulatory and legislative proposals.

The Labor Commissioner continued on the front lines of enforcement of wage and hours standards, most notably closing an appalling case of slave labor in El Monte. The Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP), created by Governor Wilson as a joint state-federal enforcement strike force to target abuses in the garment and agriculture industries, completed its pilot period. Based on its success, the Labor Commissioner and the U.S. Department of Labor signed a Memorandum of Understanding extending the program indefinitely. TIPP, an education and enforcement program, has resulted in unprecedented levels of compliance in both industries. Its model has spawned the Joint Enforcement Strike Force (JESF), a multi-agency strike force established by the Governor to attack the underground economy in California. In protecting employee rights, the Labor Commissioner also received a record number of discrimination complaints.

And, last but not least, DIR Bulletin became a bi-monthly publication instead of a quarterly.

DIR has the responsibility of protecting the rights of working men and women as guaranteed by state law. We have continued to fulfill this mandate, while meeting the challenge of balancing the interests of labor and management. As I said in my message last Labor Day, "This challenge is not always easy, but meeting it is easier when we recognize that labor and management share many common interests rather than strictly an adversarial relationship."

Those words bear repeating, as the political landscape has changed dramatically in California and nationally since last Labor Day. Both houses of Congress and the state Assembly changed partisan control for the first time in decades. These shifts will mean changes for labor and employers in labor policymaking.

On this Labor Day, we all must recognize that California and the nation have reached a pivot point on labor law and law policy. We are in an era of change, and changes in these two areas are inevitable. Today's labor force and workplace have changed, a fact that labor law and policy reforms must reflect. Employees today work in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, and more employees than ever strive to balance work with their family obligations as single parents as part of families in which both spouses work. Rather than a climate of artificial wage rates and rules limiting work hours, flexibility is necessary to enhance competitiveness and provide the opportunity for employees to balance obligations -- all while still guaranteeing and protecting minimum labor standards for employees.

Governor Wilson's administration has worked to balance the interests of employees with the need to maintain a competitive economy. We improved benefits for injured workers while reforming workers' compensation, we enhanced the strength and effectiveness of Cal/OSHA's enforcement and preventive activities by launching a targeted inspection program and expanding the consultation program, and we improved to unprecedented levels enforcement and compliance in the garment and agriculture industries through TIPP.

In California, legislative proposals include repeal of California's daily overtime requirement to allow for flexible work schedules and reforms to the state's prevailing wage requirements. But even in the midst of changes required for competitiveness and flexibility and with changes in the political landscape, our bottom line objective has been and will continue to be protecting minimum labor standards.