During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Labor began regularly issuing press releases when an employer received a major Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation or overtime assessment. The press releases were intended to encourage employer compliance with the law because of the fear of adverse publicity. They often characterized employers as intentionally violating the law or having little concern for employee welfare. Employers complained that the press releases treated initial legal proceedings as final, and that DOL failed to issue updates when citation were vacated or withdrawn.
Last month, DOL instructed its enforcement agencies to cease issuing press releases after initial citations or assessments, absent extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the agencies have been directed to issue such releases only upon conclusion of legal proceedings relating to the matters. DOL noted the fact that the initial press releases lingered online, even when the underlying citation had been reversed.
Labor groups complained that the press releases served as an effective deterrent against illegal practices. Employers noted the damage to businesses that such publicity can cause, even where they are found later not to have violated the law. From our perspective, DOL press releases frequently caused employers’ positions with regard to citations to harden, making settlement more difficult. If an employer believes that the press release has damaged the company more than the underlying legal matter, it may be more likely to contest the matter.
Depending on the results of the election, DOL may reverse this policy in coming years. For now, however, employers should know that initial accusations will not be the subject of government press releases.