More Fuel for the Home- Office Explosion

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For those of you looking at this from your home office, it looks as though there's now less chance of getting your employer to foot the bill for an ergonomically correct desk chair or smoke detectors. This week the Labor Department solidified its flip-flop on the issue of safety of home offices by officially exonerating employers from responsibility for safety conditions in remote home offices. What remains to be seen is whether employers, faced with rising costs in meeting heightened office safety standards — such as maintaining higher levels of air quality — will direct more employees into the home.

In an age when technology has made many jobs portable and most families have multiple wage-earners, the practicality and allure of "telecommuting" has grown exponentially, with more than 20 million people working for their employers out of offices in their homes. But as is the case with most areas of society transformed by recent technologies, the telecommuting phenomenon poses a host of uncertainties for federal regulators. Rarely has this been more drastic than with Labor's handling of home-office safety. First Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) sent a "letter of interpretation" to a California firm in November, making the firm responsible for keeping its employees' home offices in line with federal office safety standards. These letters traditionally constitute agency policy.

The letter went mostly unnoticed for over a month until the Washington Post wrote a story about it, prompting the scorn of business groups, which said it would be too costly for small businesses. Within 48 hours of the story's appearance, OSHA recanted, saying the letter was meant to address only one particular firm. The reason behind the reversal seems to be little more than common sense. OSHA head Charles Jeffress, who, at the President's urging, presented the report to Congress this week, told congressmen that while it initially seemed to make sense that employers not shirk their responsibilities to provide safe work environments, it's impractical for the federal government to begin policing private homes.