Katie Tracy on the Crimes Against Workers Database

A worker dies on the job.

Accident or crime?

In many cases, it’s a crime.

Katie Tracy
Center for Progressive Reform
Washington, D.C.

And local and state prosecutors are increasingly investigating them as such.

Katie Tracy is at the heart of the developing field.

She is a policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform.

In May 2016, the Center released a manual to help workplace safety activists push for criminal charge for worker deaths and injuries.

And in October 2017, the Center went live with a first of its kind database that catalogues state criminal prosecutions against corporations and individuals whose actions caused a worker’s death or injury.

“In putting together this manual for advocates, I found that there was no centralized spot for finding these cases,” Tracy told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Several of the cases you find in the database I found as I was reading through law review articles. And I would find a case cited in a footnote. I would go look it up to see what happened in the case. And I realized that there was no centralized spot for this information. So I started to create a spreadsheet for myself internally to keep track of what was going on – cases that had been prosecuted, ongoing cases, and even the campaigns.

“I saw that there were quite a few of these cases and it would be great for prosecutors and workers to have this information in one place.”

When did you release the database?

“October of 2017.”

At that time, how many cases were in the database?

“At that time there were 75 cases in the database. Right now there are close to 90.

Several of the new cases are actually wage theft cases. Those were announced after the database. In that way, those are newer. There are a couple of older cases that I found after the fact and have since added to the database.”

How is wage theft a health and safety case?

“It’s not. But we include criminal charges in worker cases. Most of the cases are worker death cases however.”

Of the 90, how many are homicide cases?

“Maybe a third of them. In some of the cases, we don’t know what the criminal charge was.”

“Some of the cases are older. One of our cases goes back to 1911 – the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire – where 147 workers were killed.”

“The majority of the fatality cases involve trench collapses. Under federal OSHA law, if the trench is more than five feet deep, you need trench protection. Either shore it up, use a trench box, or it has to be sloped to a certain degree so that the dirt can’t fall back in on top of the worker.”

“Unfortunately, it’s quite common for companies to just completely disregard this obvious hazard. And workers end up being buried alive because someone didn’t follow basic safety precautions.”

Do we have a sense of whether there are more of these death on the job cases in recent years?

“Yes. There has been a growing number of cases. There was an effort back in the 1970s and 1980s to prosecute these cases. We found seven or eight cases where local prosecutors pursued these cases. In the 1990s, the pushed died out. There were a handful of court decisions that ruled that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act preempted states from enforcing its general criminal laws against employers.”

“Those cases have all been overturned since. And now it is clear that states can enforce their general criminal laws in these types of cases. We are starting to see a revival. It has been slower than I would like to see.”

“Prosecutors see that other prosecutors are bringing these cases. And they are seeing these cases in a different light. There is precedent they can look to. And we are starting to see these criminal wage theft cases.”

“New York has recently undertaken an effort to develop what they are calling their construction fraud task force. They have been pursuing these cases quite aggressively. The fact that we have seen a new program like that take off is one indication. All five of the boroughs in New York City are involved with the task force.”

Other than the New York task force, are there any other district attorneys who are more active than not?

“The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office years ago started what they call their environmental roll out task force. Even though it’s called their environmental roll out program, they look at worker death cases as well. They started their program back in the 1980s. They are model example of that kind of program.”

“There is a case out of Seattle. A worker named Harold Felton died in a trench collapse. There was one other criminal case that had been explored in the area. There was a worker advocate who reached out to us about our manual and about talking to the prosecutor. The advocate ended up organizing a meeting with the prosecutor’s office. He drew up a letter that was signed onto by hundreds of organizations calling for an investigation of the death. That brought it to the attention of the prosecutor. They conducted a thorough investigation and decided that criminal charges were warranted in the case.”

Is that the first case where you can trace your work directly to a criminal prosecution?

“As far as I’m aware, yes. Obviously, it was the prosecutor who did the investigation and decided that there were grounds for a prosecution. But yes, it is the one most closely tied to a worker advocate using our research to reach out to the prosecutor.”

Who was the advocate?

“Jay Herzmark from SafeWork Washington.”

Are you getting a sense that the decades long push to deregulate federal health and safety law and enforcement is fueling this rise in local prosecutions?

“Yes. The reason we are urging more aggressive local and state prosecutions is because federal OSHA lacks critical support to adequately enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The OSHA Act has been largely successful in reducing deaths and injuries on the job. That is, until recently. We are now seeing the numbers increase.”

“There has been a seven percent increase of worker deaths over the last two years. Unfortunately, the criminal penalties under the OSHA Act have limited application. And Congress has declined to update the law to address the weaknesses in the Act.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Katie Tracy see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 11(13), March 12, 2018, print edition only.]

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