Feds Make Home-work Safer, or at Least Nicer

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A recent Labor Department advisory has businesses and labor groups wrestling with exactly where the office ends and the outside world begins. The memo, issued in response to a California credit firm's inquiry, makes employers responsible for such details as air quality and lighting in the home for employees who work at home, even if only once in a while. But in an eye-catching case of responsive politics, Labor recanted the advisory Wednesday after business leaders complained that it was ill-conceived and unfair. Issued in mid-November by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but first reported by the Washington Post Tuesday, the advisory offers a modern interpretation of a 30-year-old policy. Business groups and some prominent Republican lawmakers blasted it as a narrow-minded interpretation of an arcane rule, forcing Labor secretary Alexis Herman to say it was only meant as a response to an inquiring firm, not as law.

Now it's labor groups that are miffed, arguing that because employers are spared a host of expenses when workers stay at home it's only fair that they ante-up their share to keep the workplace safe. And some business groups are calling Herman's backpeddling insincere and ineffectual since these advisories traditionally set national precedents. "Despite what OSHA says, this is clearly a change of policy," said Ed Petter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation. The real coup for the laptop-reliant worker: When employers are forced to have ergonomically correct chairs installed at Starbucks.