A tiff over telecommuting

The first workweek of 2000 was not without excitement. Topic: The roughly 19 million American employees who work from home, via phone lines.

It all started when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent a letter to a Texas-based computer company back on Nov. 15 clarifying government policy.

The letter stated companies would be held responsible for health and safety violations that occur at the homes of telecommuting employees. OSHA also posted the letter on its Web site. But the issue did not get press attention until last week.

Telecommuting groups protested. Civil libertarians balked at the possibility of official intrusion in private homes. Last Wednesday, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman withdrew the letter, saying it caused "widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others" - and called for talks on what the rules should be for home-based workers.

For now, OSHA continues to require companies to make sure employees work in safe conditions - even at home.

Gil Gordon, who advises companies on telecommuting, says it's unlikely most workers would file frivolous lawsuits that would jeopardize their ability to telecommute. "The intent of what OSHA is trying to do is sound," Mr. Gordon says. "There are some legitimate concerns.... But let's deal with them a little more calmly and rationally."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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