News & Politics

Open Up, It’s OSHA

The Government's Attempt to Regulate Home Offices Isn't New. Twenty Years Ago, It Almost Busted Me.

When the occupational safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it was going to regulate home offices, I wasn't surprised. Twenty years ago, I got a call from an OSHA inspector demanding to inspect my house to see if it was a safe working environment.

What had I done to merit attention? I'd scheduled a staff meeting at home.

In 1980, I was a new bureaucrat, hired on an "expert" appointment to head the public information office of the Labor Department's Employment Standards Administration (ESA). The assistant secretary explained that the office was performing badly. Morale was so low that the staff reportedly had been in group therapy–no doubt dubbed "training in team-building skills" on the requisition form.

Within a week, I was in trouble: A member of the staff filed a grievance against me. And there's nothing a Democratic administration's Labor Department hates more than a labor dispute.

It took me a while to realize that the employee was documenting our "differences of opinion" so she could file complaints against me. My accuser was an old hand: While I'd been taking umbrage at her adversarial attitude, she'd been taking notes.

Before long, I was spending almost as much time responding to grievances and preparing for future grievances as I was on doing my job. As tension inside the office rose, morale sank lower.

My solution to the morale problem proved to be my undoing. I invited the staff to my Bethesda house for a lunch and a "retreat" to set office goals.

No sooner had I pulled out my spinach-quiche recipe than a new grievance appeared on my desk. By scheduling a meeting at home, I was "changing the work environment" and thus violating the union contract.

Then I got the call. It was an OSHA inspector who wanted to set up an inspection of my house.

I had visions of men in gas masks invading my messy closets, pawing through boxes in my basement in search of carcinogens. My uncarpeted stairs were bound to be in violation of some safety rule. My cluttered kitchen was certain to fail inspection.

"What can I do to keep you from coming?" I asked the inspector.

"Sign an agreement never to hold another Labor Department meeting at your house," he said.

I agreed. The inspection was canceled.

No one in the department thought the inspection was dumb. A grievance had been filed; rules are rules.


In defence of my former colleagues, it's easy to lose perspective inside a government agency. Bureaucrats spend so much time in internecine warfare over the wording of a decision document that it's no wonder they lose sight of whether what they're doing makes sense.

Many of the Labor Department people I worked with saw themselves as the last line of defense against workplace abuses. They'd gone into the sweatshops, the migrant-labor camps, and the factories where machinery maimed workers.

But did my Bethesda house constitute that kind of a threat? How bad could my quiche be?

Soon after I dodged my OSHA inspection, ESA proposed a new rule–to regulate Vermont ladies knitting sweaters in their homes. The agency said a woman knitting ski hats in her living room was operating a sweatshop if the company she knit for paid her by the hat, not by the hour.

The media had a field day. One newspaper ran a cartoon of the Labor Secretary standing outside a cottage and shouting into a bullhorn, "Come out with your knitting needles up!"

After the outcry, the Secretary withdrew the rule and let the knitters go back to their knitting.

Sound familiar?