One of the five Iowa Democrats vying for the chance to run against U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican first elected in 2014, says on his website that he “will protect American workers.”
But other claims about Ernst and President Donald Trump from the candidate, Eddie Mauro, a small-business owner from Des Moines, were what got the attention of the Fact Checker:
“During Joni Ernst’s time in the United States Senate protections for Iowa workers on the job have been gutted, OSHA enforcement budgets slashed, and workplace deaths have increased.”
Mauro continues: “In 2017, the first year of the Trump administration for which full data is available, Latino workplace deaths increased from 879 deaths in 2016 to 927 deaths in 2017, with foreign-born immigrant Latino workers constituting 63 percent of those deaths.”
Three claims here fit the Fact Checker criteria of being verifiable. They are: “OSHA enforcement budgets slashed,” “workplace deaths have increased” and “Latino workplace deaths increased from 879 deaths in 2016 to 927 deaths in 2017” with immigrant Latinos making up 63 percent of them.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor, oversees worker safety.
“Federal OSHA is a small agency,” the Labor Department reports online. “With our state partners we have approximately 2,100 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers, employed at more than 8 million worksites around the nation — which translates to about one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.”
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Budget briefs for the Labor Department going back to 2016 show OSHA’s budget for “federal enforcement” have stayed flat or increased since 2015, when Ernst took office. The enforcement budget was $208 million from 2015 to 2018, then went up to $209 million in 2019 and $221.7 million in 2020.
So the enforcement budget hasn’t been slashed as Mauro claims.
The candidate’s staff pointed to a March 2019 report by the National Employment Law Project that says enforcement actions overall have declined in the Trump administration and there is less focus on complicated, high-impact cases.
The Employment Law Project is a New York City, union-backed group that advocates for left-leaning labor and employment legislation, according to Influence Watch. The group’s report uses OSHA stats to make its case.
In 2016, OSHA started weighting enforcement actions to give more value to resource-intensive activity focusing on some of the most hazardous workplace issues, such as ergonomics, heat and chemical exposure. OSHA’s total enforcement units went down from 42,900 in fiscal 2016, to 41,829 in fiscal 2017 and then 41,478 in fiscal 2018, according to OSHA enforcement summaries.
The center shares statistics showing the number of federal OSHA compliance officers was at an all-time low in 2019, but actually refutes Mauro’s point about the budget.
“The drop in the number of inspectors is not just a budget issue, because OSHA’s enforcement budget remained the same in FY 2017 and was increased in FY 2018 appropriations. Rather, OSHA has been slow to fill vacancies when inspectors leave the agency. For example, OSHA did not fill any inspector vacancies in calendar year 2017.”
Let’s move on to claim No. 2 — that workplace deaths have increased since Ernst took office.
Nationwide, the number of people who died on the job went up from 4,836 in 2015 to 5,250 in 2018, the Labor Statistics Bureau reported. For 2018, there were more than 100 deaths a week, or more than 14 per day.
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But there also were increases in workplace deaths in 2013 and 2014 before Ernst joined the Senate.
The U.S. workforce has grown in recent years, which the Fact Checker checked in February. But even factoring in that increase in workers, the rate of workplace injuries was higher in 2018 than 2015.
Transportation incidents account for about 40 percent of all work-related deaths, Labor Statistics reported. About 20 percent of private sector workplace deaths occur in construction, with falls, being struck by an object, electrocution and being caught or in between something being the most common causes of construction deaths.
The last claim about Latino worker deaths increasing between 2016 and 2017 is true.
The Labor Department reported 903 Latino workers died on the job in 2017, up from 879 in 2016. Of 2017 Latino worker deaths, 568, or 63 percent, were foreign-born, Hispanic or Latino. The number of Latino worker deaths went up even more in 2018 to 961, Labor reported.
So what does all this have to do with Ernst?
Mauro’s staff says Ernst’s decisions in the Senate have affected worker safety. For example, she voted in 2017 to repeal an OSHA rule requiring employers to keep records of workplace illnesses and incidents. She also voted in 2017 to repeal the Fair Pay & Safe Workplaces rule, an Obama administration rule that would have required federal contractors and subcontractors to disclose violations or alleged violations of labor laws when bidding on federal contracts of more than $500,000. Some contractors had called the rule “blacklisting.
But the accusation Mauro levels on the website is that Ernst “gutted” worker protections and that’s a subjective phrase we can’t verify.
Mauro gets an F on the statement about OSHA enforcement budgets being slashed. The Employment Law Project report about enforcement priorities is relevant context, but it doesn’t change the numbers. He gets an A for his statements about increases in workplace deaths overall and for Latino workers. Averaging two As and an F is an overall C.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable.
We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at email@example.com.
This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.