The Labor Department Rejects Proposal That Jeopardizes Teen Workers

Just last month, the U.S. Labor Department abandoned a controversial rule to roll back policy that protected youth workers from operating dangerous machinery. Now, many workers and patients are relieved.

As of November 20, the U.S. Labor Department’s Fall Regulatory Agenda abandoned the proposed rule to roll back current policy that prohibits young workers (age 16 and 17) from operating powered patient lifting devices unless they are properly trained and are using such devices in tandem with a worker who is 18 or older.

Many workers and nursing home residents consider this action a victory, as the current law arguably protects young works and “represents a bright spot in an otherwise bleak regulatory agenda for workers” according to one article.

The current rule that prohibits unauthorized handling of devices for workers 16 and 17 of age was challenged by the Labor Department in 2018. Opponents wanted to roll it back and allow looser regulations.

However, many had qualms about removing this major safeguard.

“The Labor Department finally heard our demand to withdraw this proposal,” said Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project. “Even with their efforts to hide information about this dangerous and unpopular rule, they couldn’t overcome the workers and patient advocates who came together to stop it.”

In fact, one nationwide poll suggested that 78 percent of respondents opposed rolling back the current law’s protection, with strong opposition across demographic groups, regions, and political affiliations. The most intense opposition came from not only workers and their representatives but also nursing home residents and their advocates—notably because the nursing home industry has the highest rates of any industry in the United States.

In addition to the inherent risks associated with rolling back the current rule, the proposed new rule was not supported with justifiable evidence, many argued. The Labor Department supposedly provided little evidence or risk analysis to justify the new rule—and what it didprove turned out to be based on an inaccurate reading of what advocates discovered was a seven-year-old, 22-respondent Survey Monkey poll of vocational programs in Massachusetts.  

In nursing facilities especially, allowing 16- and 17-year-old nursing assistants to operate mechanical lifts without adult assistance would have led to more instances of painful and dangerous injuries to young nursing home employees—many of whom lack sufficient experience and training to handle the difficult task of lifting and moving residents with complex physical and mental disabilities.

The new rule also met backlash because it failed to consider nursing home residents who have disabilities or who are older, who would be at increased risk of falls and other traumas.

While this controversial law and its recent rejection is big news for many, it is not the only conversation around worker law and federal regulations on occupation. The Labor Department’s Fall Regulatory Agenda includes a number of other topics, and National Employment Law Project has some opinions on them.

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