SACRAMENTO — A federal judge in Sacramento Wednesday granted a last-minute reprieve to groups that are trying to save the state's safety and health program.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton issued a temporary restraining order, effective today through Oct. 19, barring the federal government from assuming total jurisdiction over health and safety for California's 9.5 million private sector workers.
Karlton acted in response to a lawsuit filed by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a public interest law organization, on behalf of a group of farm workers. They contend that Gov. George Deukmejian acted illegally in vetoing funding for the state's division of occupational safety and health (Cal/OSHA). Several court cases trying to save the agency have been unsuccessful, but another hearing in state court is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Earlier in the day, the U.S Department of Labor had announced that it would assume full jurisdiction over the program. The judge said there would be "public harm" if the Labor Department prevented the state courts from acting.
Deukmejian first announced plans to abolish the agency in January, saying it would save the state $8 million annually without any loss of protection for workers. Critics of the move, including representatives of organized labor, public health groups and some business trade associations, strenuously disagreed contending that the state health and safety program was considerably stronger than the federal one.
However, Deukmejian never wavered from his original position. And on July 1 federal OSHA assumed concurrent jurisdiction with the state for the safety and health of private sector workers, saying it would allow the state to retain some power while a battle between the governor and the Legislature over the agency's budget was being resolved.
In a formal statement Wednesday morning, the Labor Department said it had been forced to assume full jurisdiction because the state Legislature had failed to override Gov. Deukmejian's veto of funding for the state program before adjourning Sept. 11.
Federal OSHA has set up five field offices in California. However, state safety and health laws remain in effect as a result of Karlton's ruling.
Regardless of the outcome of the Oct. 19 state court hearing, California will retain jurisdiction over the safety and health of 1.45 million state and municipal workers.
In a related development Sunday, the governor vetoed another Cal/OSHA related bill. This one would have allowed local prosecutors such as Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to continue to file criminal charges against employers whose negligence resulted in death or serious injury to workers. Deukmejian said: "This bill assumes that federal OSHA will not effectively protect workers. There is no evidence to support that."
However, Reiner asserted that the veto showed that Deukmejian's true motivation for abolishing the state agency "was to protect employers from prosecution for serious safety violations," rather than merely for fiscal reasons. He said the bill "would not have resulted in any more state costs."
Reiner also noted that California prosecutors have been much more aggressive in bringing criminal cases in the health and safety arena than has the federal government. Since 1970, there have been only 14 federal criminal prosecutions nationwide for unsafe working conditions. In the last two years, Reiner said his office had filed 17 such cases.
Last month John F. Henning, executive secretary of the California Federation of Labor, announced that a coalition will launch a ballot initiative campaign to restore Cal/OSHA.
Douglas Shuit reported from Sacramento and Henry Weinstein reported from Los Angeles.