Investigations

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet is asking the legislature to do something bold put it out of business.

The Labor Cabinet would merge with the Public Protection Cabinet under a plan proposed Tuesday to the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee. Cabinet leaders said eliminating the Labor Cabinet would save money, streamline government and improve the functions of Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health agency, which has been under federal scrutiny since a critical audit released in August.

The federal audit, first publicized by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in November, found that Kentucky had failed to properly investigate nearly every worker fatality in a two-year period. Inspectors often didn’t interview eyewitnesses, missed worker safety violations and improperly blamed employees for their own deaths, according to the investigation, published in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Deputy Secretary Michael Swansburg told the legislative committee that the federal audit  which he called “the elephant in the room”  was the impetus for the merger proposal.

In the months since this audit was publicized, the Labor Cabinet has promised pay raises, additional training and more equipment for health and safety inspectors. The Labor Cabinet last week announced a series of changes intended to “raise the bar for our compliance officers and for this state.”

But to truly improve the agency, Swansburg said, it needs to be moved to the “enforcement and regulatory-minded” Public Protection Cabinet. The merged agencies would be called the Public and Worker Protection Cabinet.

“We have to help change the overall culture and get folks in a mindset of enforcement,” said Swansburg.

The Labor Cabinet’s interim secretary, David Dickerson, has history with the Public Protection Cabinet. He was appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin to lead that agency in 2015 and stayed there until last June, when Bevin moved him to Labor.

The Public Protection Cabinet oversees a number of diverse regulatory agencies, including professional licensing, alcohol and beverage control, gaming, horse-racing, and tax appeals.

The Labor Cabinet oversees the Department of Workplace Standards, which handles worker safety and wage and hour enforcement, and the Department of Workers’ Claims, which handles workers compensation.

Under this proposal, the Public Protection Cabinet would take control of the Department of Workplace Standards and the regulatory functions of the Department of Workers’ Claims.

The administrative law judges of the Department of Workers’ Claims would become a quasi-judicial agency under the General Government Cabinet.

Swansburg said the Public Protection Cabinet supports the plan, and he stressed that there would be no cuts of current staff or programmatic changes. But he did project a savings of over $1 million by not filling 11 currently vacant positions within the Labor Cabinet.

The proposal doesn’t yet have a legislative sponsor.

Handout photo

Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson

This is not the first time the Labor Cabinet’s status has been up for debate, and past governors have made the change administratively. It was created as a cabinet under Gov. Martha Layne Collins, but Gov. Ernie Fletcher made it a department-level agency. Gov. Steve Beshear elevated it back to cabinet status in 2008.

“Workers are the foundation of this state, and they deserve to have a more direct access to the governor’s office,” Beshear said in a news release at the time, according to the Cincinnati Business Courier. “This reorganization puts more emphasis on much-needed front-line workers – including field inspectors – and less emphasis on desk-bound management staff.”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson said bringing the functions of the Labor Cabinet under the Public Protection Cabinet would help those front-line workers as the worker safety agency tries to improve.

“Our goal is to make sure all of our people have the highest level of training, the highest level of encouragement…to do the things that are necessary to make sure [workers] remain safe,” he said.

Dickerson’s former role leading the Public Protection Cabinet has not been permanently filled.

When asked if he would take the helm of the merged agency he had just proposed, he smiled.

“That’s the governor’s decision, not mine.”

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.