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Senate votes to confirm new Labor secretary

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The Senate voted today to confirm Thomas Perez to be the next Secretary of Labor in a 54 to 46 vote.

Before his confirmation Perez led the Justice Department’s civil-rights division and was previously Maryland’s labor secretary.

President Obama said in a statement that Perez had dedicated his career to keeping the American dream alive for families across the country.

“At the Department of Labor, Tom will help us continue to grow our economy, help businesses create jobs, make sure workers have the skills those jobs require, and ensure safe workplaces and economic opportunity for all,” Obama said.

Labor app to track companies’ workplace conditions

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The Labor Department wants to make it easier for consumers to track which businesses are treating their workers fairly.

Labor announced an app development contest Tuesday that it hopes will “help empower consumers to make informed choices about where to bring their business,” according to an agency news release.

The smartphone app will include Labor’s publicly available enforcement data, data from consumer ratings and geopositioning websites and other data available through state health boards.

“The app could also prove a useful tool for job seekers and for companies that are deciding which firms they may want to do business with,” Laura Fortman, principal deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, said in a statement. ” It could also help individuals get in touch with the Labor Department if they have any questions.”

Contest details will be posted on Challenge.gov, and developers have until Oct. 11 to submit their app to the department.

 

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Association of Government Accountants honors agency reporting

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Twenty agencies big and small were recently noted for top-notch financial and performance reporting by the Association of Government Accountants.

The “Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting” (CEAR)  singles out “high-quality Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs) and Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) that effectively illustrate and assess financial and program performance, accomplishments and challenges, cost and accountability,” the accountants association said in a news release. The association also spotlights the teams of dedicated federal professionals who (often unsung) put the reports together.

“Given the fiscal status of the United States government and the public’s perceptions about government fiscal accountability and transparency, the achievement of this year’s CEAR recipients is even more significant,” AGA Executive Director Relmond Van Daniker said in the release. The agencies being honored “truly represent a select group within the government financial management community.”

Here’s a rundown of the winners:

Architect of the Capitol
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Housing Finance Agency
Federal Trade Commission
NASA
Office of Financial Stability (Treasury Department)
Peace Corps
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Education Department
Housing and Urban Development Department
Interior Department
Labor Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Patent and Trademark Office
Securities and Exchange Commission
Small Business Administration
Social Security Administration

Also honored at the May 22 National Press Club ceremony were 10 agencies that showed “specific points of excellence” within their fiscal year 2012 PARs. Known as ‘Best in Class’ awards, the recipients included:

Health and Human Services Department: Best Summary of Management and Performance Challenges by the Inspector General
Labor Department: Most Complete Schedule of Spending
Peace Corps: Most Comprehensive and Candid Presentation of Forward-Looking Information
FTC: Best Agency Head Message
HUD: Best Presentation of a Financial Management Systems Framework
Interior: Best High-Level Discussion of Performance
Capitol Architect: Best Analysis of an Agency’s Financial Statements
FAA: Most Representative of Editorial Excellence
Department of Homeland Security: Best Improper Payment and Recovery Act Reporting
Central Intelligence Agency: Best Introduction

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Watchdog group: Four IG offices now leaderless for years

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Hard to believe, but the State Department’s Office of Inspector General has been without a permanent head for more than four years.

That fact, highlighted this week by the Project on Government Oversight, puts the office in an unlucky class of four IG agencies that have had vacancies at the top for at least 1,000 days.

The others are the Interior and Labor departments and the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the Obama administration last fall nominated attorney Deborah Jeffrey for the inspector general’s job at the national service corporation, the Senate has yet to confirm her.

But the White House has named no one for the top positions at the other three offices. Although there are undoubtedly plenty of competent career folks to carry on in the meantime, ‘”a permanent IG has the ability to set a long-term strategic plan, . . . including setting investigative and audit priorities,” POGO said on its web site, adding that the administration has “no good excuse” for failing to nominate someone for a post that has been vacant for years.

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment today.

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Postal Service woes could undermine federal workers’ comp fund

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What happens at the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t necessarily stay at the Postal Service.

The latest example: A federal workers’ compensation fund could run out of money within three months if the cash-strapped mail carrier skips a $1.2 billion payment due in mid-October, according to the Labor Department.

The department runs the fund under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. Should the Postal Service miss the October “chargeback” for past claims, officials estimate that the program would have no money to pay any benefits during the last four months of fiscal 2012, running from next June through September, according to a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

BUT, the fund could have to halt benefits by late this November if the Postal Service misses its required payment and—as is considered extremely possible—the government begins fiscal 2012 under a continuing resolution. The reason is that Congress generally doesn’t appropriate enough money under a short-term CR to cover the cost of annual lump sum benefits, Brian Kennedy, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs, said in the letter. On top of that, the workers’ comp fund wouldn’t have enough money to pay the vendor that processes medical claims under the compensation act, Kennedy wrote. His letter, dated Aug. 1, was first reported by Reuters news service.

So, will the Postal Service, which describes itself as effectively bankrupt, be able to ante up?  At this point, the answer is yes, spokesman Dave Partenheimer said today in an email. But in its third-quarter report released earlier this month, the Postal Service suggested it could  have “insufficient cash” to meet all of its federal obligations this fall, including the workers’ comp component.

The moral? To rewrite a famous line from English poet John Donne, no agency is an island. And for thousands of federal workers’ comp beneficiaries out there . . . keep your fingers crossed.

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Contract compliance agency seeks data

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The agency that ensures federal contractors are meeting federal employment rules is seeking more information from contractors.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) says the changes should make the process easier on contractors while also providing better data for their evaluations.

But corporate law firms and consultant groups are alerting contractors via their blogs and websites that the additional data OFCCP wants will actually be a new burden for them.

OFCCP, which checks contractors’ compliance with federal affirmative action and equal employment opportunity requirements, sends what’s called a Scheduling Letter to contractors selected for a compliance evaluation. That letter lists what data the contractor is required to submit so OFCCP can perform its evaluation.

The current form of the Scheduling Letter is set to expire on Sept. 30, prompting the proposed changes by the OFCCP which are posted at regulations.gov.

The additional information  that OFCCP is seeking includes policies for employment leave and accommodations for religious observances and practices; demographic data on applicants, hires, promotions, and terminations; compensation data for each employee by job title, EEO-1 category, and job group; and the last three years’ of veterans’ employment reports.

Corporate lawyers are encouraging contractors to provide comments to the proposed changes, which OFCCP will accept through July 11. And in the meantime, contractors should review their policies, as well as their affirmative action plans and procedures, to ensure they comply with legal requirements, law firms advise.

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How Big Coal flummoxed mining agency

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Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Washington Post today has an interesting article about the never-ending struggle between the coal mining industry — especially Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners died in an explosion last April — and the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. The Post describes how Massey leverages MSHA’s bureaucratic backlog and safety waiver process to essentially overwhelm and checkmate the agency.

Under [former CEO Don] Blankenship, Massey had mastered the art of the regulatory waiver, a way to legally circumvent federal mining laws. The MSHA has approved 30 petitions from Massey to operate its mines outside of safety mandates, more than for any other company. Most were in the past decade.

[...] The waivers allow Massey to mine through gas wells, to construct escapeways lower than the legally-mandated five feet and to create fewer ventilation channels to provide miners with clean air.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Labor: FMLA covers same-sex partners’ children

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The Labor Department yesterday said it interprets the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow an employee to take leave to care for any child for whom that employee is the primary caregiver, “regardless of the legal or biological relationship.”

This new interpretation of how FMLA defines “son and daughter” means that any employee in the United States will be able to take unpaid time off to care for any child he is serving as parent to. That includes an employee’s nephew or grandchild, if the employee has stepped in to raise the child, or the son or daughter of an employee’s unmarried domestic partner — gay or straight.

The change is similar to regulations the Office of Personnel Management issued last week for federal employees, which allowed federal employees to use paid leave to care for their domestic partners — both same-sex and opposite-sex — and their partners’ children. But since OPM’s changes last week granting paid leave are more generous than unpaid FMLA leave, these Labor Department changes are likely to affect more private-sector workers and other non-federal employees than feds.

Yesterday’s announcement is another step in the Obama administration’s gradual expansion of workplace benefits to gay and lesbian workers. But gay rights activists have criticized the slow pace of reforms from the White House, and the lack of significant progress toward repealing the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

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New rule: contractors must give employees union info

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Government contractors and subcontractors are now required to post signs that “inform their employees of their rights as employees under federal labor laws.” Acquisition workers will have to write the provision into every contract they write from now on.

The rule went into effect yesterday, about a month after the Labor Department published it in the Federal Register. It’s based on a Jan. 30, 2009 executive order from President Obama. The president wrote at the time that his order was “designed to promote economy and efficiency in government procurement.  When the Federal Government contracts for goods or services, it has a proprietary interest in ensuring that those contracts will be performed by contractors whose work will not be interrupted by labor unrest.”

Essentially, the order and the rule are designed to ensure that employees are aware of their right to join a union. The move is part of a package of labor-related executive orders issued in early 2009. One, related to collective bargaining agreements on large construction projects, already resulted in a change to federal procurement rules. Two others are still working their way through the pipeline.

Rebecca Pearson of the Washington law firm Venable said the information contained in the notices required to be posted under the new rule is fairly benign, but that the move is part of the Obama administration’s larger “pro-union agenda.” She also worried that the rule allows for contractors to be suspended or disbarred if they don’t comply.

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Feds begin investigation into mine blast

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A 25-year mine safety veteran will lead the federal team investigating last week’s explosion at a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 miners.

Norman Page, manager of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s District 6 in Pikeville, Ky., will lead the accident investigation team, according to an agency announcement. The 14-member team, scheduled to arrive at the mine today, is made up of employees outside the district office that oversees the Upper Big Branch South Mine.

On Saturday, search teams found the bodies of the final four miners who had yet to be recovered, dashing hopes that any of the miners would be pulled out alive. It’s the worse mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 miners in Kentucky.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said she and Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, will be meeting with President Obama to discuss what actions the administration can take to prevent further mine disasters. In a Saturday statement, Solis said the explosion could have been prevented.

Although details of the catastrophe are unclear at this time, we do know this: Mine explosions are preventable, miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood, and all workers deserve to come home to their families at the end of their shift safe and whole.

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