In recent years, various branches of the Labor Department have been in the habit of distributing negative news releases about businesses that have received citations. If your company has ever been the subject of such “public shaming,” you know how damaging that press coverage can be.
You may stand accused of unsafe employee environments, discriminatory practices, or violation of overtime regulations. And before you can defend your situation, OSHA or a similar agency might send the press releases to news outlets in your region or around the country. Current and potential customers might read the news and not realize the details are still in question. In the end, your reputation could suffer even if the agency eventually clears you of all accusations.
But all this may change — Per a memo sent by Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella in late September 2020, this practice needs to end.
“As a matter of Department policy, in general, enforcement agencies should not issue news releases before achieving a successful outcome. Absent extraordinary circumstances … an agency’s own finding alone generally should not be the basis for the release,” Pizzella stated in the memo.
Instead, press releases will be issued only after a court has issued a judgment or decision; a plea agreement or conviction has been confirmed; parties enter a settlement or agree to a penalty; or the timeframe for contesting the citation has lapsed.
The Labor Department will make exceptions for cases involving a serious or widespread violation that has not been addressed before. In that instance, a press release could bring new issues to light and increase worker protection.
The basic idea, in keeping with the national legal system, is to assume innocence until guilt is proven. Most people see that as a reasonable position. However, those in workplace regulation take issue.
David Michaels, former director of OSHA during the Obama administration, made it policy to distribute press releases in any case that involved a recommended fine of $40,000 or higher. “OSHA is a tiny agency, and if it doesn’t amplify the impact of its inspections, it will have very little effect on almost every workplace in the United States,” he said. Michaels further explained that this approach puts pressure on other employers to follow regulations.
However, as many business owners can attest, negative press can ruin a reputation. The information can spread throughout social media and on websites, where — in various forms — it can live forever. Even if a company is vindicated, outdated details can be impossible to erase.
This policy could evolve again in 2021, as Labor Department leadership changes under the Biden administration. If your business has received a citation from OSHA or another agency, make sure you understand your rights and protections.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.