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Md. attorney general: We must defy Trump administration's assault on worker well-being

The Maryland Food Bank is offering "Pantry On the Go" food distribution for federal workers affected by the shutdown. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

The relief was palpable last Friday when President Donald Trump finally capitulated and agreed to end the longest federal government shutdown in history. Yet this shameful episode, which the president is threatening to put the country through again next month, held 800,000 federal workers and millions more employees of federal contractors hostage, as they suffered a slew of foreseeable harms from which some may never recover. Families faced mortgage defaults, missed rent and car payments, and were forced to make terrible choices between buying groceries, medicine and other daily necessities as they tried to cope without the income on which many depend every month to make ends meet. Contractors’ employees went without wages they may never recoup — some losing jobs altogether — as small businesses lacked the cushion to weather this blow.

President Trump’s willingness to inflict these hardships displayed a callous disregard for federal workers. Yet this attempt to treat federal employees as pawns is simply the administration’s latest and most visible assault on the health, safety and livelihoods of all American workers. For the last two years, the president has systematically sought to dismantle much of the regulatory framework on which we have relied for decades to keep workers safe and empower them to seek fair compensation and decent working conditions.

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In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other advocates filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to stop the termination of TPS protections for more than 300,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti.

The steps taken on this relentless march to sabotage workers are many. With more than 4,800 workers killed and millions more injured on the job every year, the Trump administration is trying to weaken requirements for employers to keep and make public accurate records of workplace injuries in order to prevent tragedies from happening again. It has delayed or rolled back regulations protecting farm, construction and other workers from exposure to dangerous silica dust, beryllium, pesticides and other cancer-causing compounds. Miners face increased danger with changes in mine inspections that make it easier for unscrupulous operators to conceal safety hazards. Despite the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and dumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the administration eliminated the requirement that oil rigs undergo third-party safety inspections.

These actions exact a real and tragic toll; even short delays in worker protections from toxins like silica dust, for example, cost hundreds of lives. To make matters worse, while threatening workers’ health and safety, the administration is simultaneously weakening their health insurance coverage by removing protections designed to ensure that workers receive the benefits they were promised.

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This onslaught extends also to workers’ ability to support themselves and their families. The president attempted to allow employers to take employees’ tips until thwarted by fierce opposition. He refused to defend a rule that would have strengthened overtime protections for 12.5 million workers; abandonment of this rule will cost workers $1.2 billion per year. He has made it more difficult for workers saving for retirement, and for employers and federal agencies trying to identify pay disparities and remedy employment discrimination. The administration has also sought to undermine a rule that simplifies and streamlines union elections through which workers join together to advocate for better wages and working conditions.

President Trump’s immigration crackdown has become the nasty boss’ best friend, worker advocates say. Terrified of deportation, more workers are putting up with unpaid wages, untreated injuries and various forms of mental and physical abuse.

In the face of this relentless battering of the country’s workforce, states must step up to fight back. With the federal government abandoning its obligations, we must respond by thwarting this unconscionable abdication of responsibility. I have joined other state attorneys general to oppose many of these regulatory attacks, challenging them in court when possible. State leaders must also ensure adequate funding of state and local agencies responsible for combating wage theft and safeguarding other worker protections. States must make vigorous enforcement a priority.

Let us come together to ensure that federal workers are never again held hostage to the whims of a president who believes he can ransom their health and well-being to get his way. And let us stand together in defiance of this administration’s assault to safeguard the health and well-being of all workers.

Brian E. Frosh is the attorney general of Maryland; he can be reached at oag@oag.state.md.us.

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