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As Safe As Houses

Bill seeks to keep OSHA out of teleworkers' homes for good.

For homebased businesses that employ other at-home workers, word in January that (OSHA) was charging into teleworkers' home offices was like Big Brother threatening to ransack your digs.

After all, the "letter of interpretation" issued by OSHA was quite clear: Employers must ensure that their teleworking employees' home offices are safe workplaces. For some 19 million teleworkers whose employers allow them to occasionally work from home, the letter-which was formally retracted the day after the news broke in early January-could have posed a serious threat to the increasingly popular alternative work arrangement.

Enter Rep. J.D. Hayworth, the Republican congressman from Maricopa County, Arizona.

To Hayworth, the policy was a burdensome governmental intrusion that could have stalled the growth of teleworking. Benefits of teleworking include reduced auto pollution, lower real estate and infrastructure costs for employers, and higher satisfaction-and productivity-from employees. For some homebased employers, it may be the only legal or logistical way to hire employees because of local zoning restrictions or space constrictions.

"We wanted to make sure this new kind of working relationship between employer and employee wasn't stifled," says Larry Telford, Hayworth's press secretary.

In late February, Hayworth introduced the "Home Office Protection Enhancement Act" (H.R. 3539). Its goal is to amend the OSHA Act of 1970 so that the act doesn't apply to employment performed in a workplace located in the employee's residence. (The bill applies only to teleworking scenarios, since OSHA doesn't cover the homebased businesses of entrepreneurs.)

While the bill has merit, it could be too far-reaching-and possibly backfire, says Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a Monmouth Junction, New Jersey-based homebased teleworking consulting firm. If the act passes, OSHA will no longer have the responsibility-or legal jurisdiction-to investigate the admittedly unlikely scenarios of home-office related injuries or deaths, he suspects.

"I think it's counterproductive to tie up OSHA this way," Gordon says. "Given what we know about the growth in home offices and work-at-home [employees], I don't believe any government agency should be completely prevented from including the home work site in their jurisdiction as long as some reasonable tests and limits are applied."

The bill, which is currently in review in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has 14 Republican and Independent sponsors, and has received bipartisan support, Telford says. "This isn't a partisan issue," says Telford. "Both sides agree that something has to be done to ensure this [potential for intrusion] doesn't happen again."

Journalist and author Jeff Zbar has worked from home since the 1980s. He writes about home business, teleworking, marketing, communications and other SOHO issues.

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