Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2000 /28 Teves, 5760
Before withdrawing a federal interpretation that was made following a request from a Texas employer, OSHA asserted jurisdiction over home offices if employers allow employees to work at home. Employers might have been charged with making sure home offices had ergonomically correct furniture, "proper'' lighting, ventilation, heating and air conditioning, safe staircases, working toilets and other things required of more traditional workplaces.
The media played this up as "helping'' people. This is the view the media take of all government programs and regulations, even those that fail, because it isn't success that matters, only intent. One network interviewed an employer who had discovered a home office in which wooden beams were unevenly placed on file cabinets to serve as support for a computer. Extreme cases are always used by government to force change on the public, which then must succumb to whatever the government wants us to do. Once a precedent is established, it is difficult to stop further government intrusions.
As with virtually everything else that occurs in the Clinton administration, the OSHA regulation was more about politics than safety. Writing in the Jan. 5 Wall Street Journal, Eugene Scalia, a Washington attorney, observed: "There is a method to OSHA's madness. The policy is part of a string of recent initiatives intended to court union leaders as the presidential primaries approach .... For labor unions, at-home workplaces are a nightmare. How do you unionize workers who don't come to the office? (If they go on strike, do they picket their own homes?) Hence OSHA's policy, and its undoubted effect: to drive up the cost of having employees work at home and thereby discourage one of the most valuable efficiencies of the digital economy.''
Had this not been an election year, the policy might have been pursued, but the Clinton administration clearly wanted to avoid the specter of federal police storming private homes in a replay of the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco, Texas, so it pulled the plug for another day. And there will be another day. Normally government deprives us of our rights and money by increments. In this case, its true intentions were too quickly revealed.
Government will always seek new ways to invade our lives unless it is stopped. It cannot tolerate widespread independent success because if people are successful without government, they will have less need of government. The influence, cost and craving for new tax revenue by government will then decline, along with its associated political power. Similarly, that's what the debate over taxing the Internet is about. Allowing such an independent entrepreneurial invention to prosper without government interference might alert people that they can prosper without government. If you're a government or political careerist, that's worse news than a stock-market plunge.
Legitimate questions were raised about how far OSHA could, or would, go had the ruling been allowed to stand. In addition to its stated mission of making sure home offices are up to government standards (how many people would be satisfied with the boss or his/her representative making a house call and noticing what else goes on in their home?), would the government also penalize employees if they smoked at home? What other Fourth Amendment protections could be violated? And how long would it be before government, having established the precedent of invading your "castle,'' declared that employers are not as well equipped as government to make home-office workers comply with government regulations and federal agents start knocking on your door -- or breaking it down? And what other government agency might have followed OSHA through your door, across your carpet and into whatever other part of your home it decided was necessary to make you conform, in your interest of course, to what government says you must do?
We used to call this "Big Brother'' when the Soviets did