Minnesota Labor Commissioner Appointee Resigns after Workers' Comp Flap

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, hoping to minimize the damage to his newly minted administration, asked Jane Volz, his appointee for state labor commissioner, to resign after she admitted her failure as an employer to pay into the state's workers' compensation fund.

Volz, calling it "oversight," resigned on Feb. 28, after admitting she failed to pay mandatory workers' compensation insurance for the employees at her law firm. Pawlenty said he doubted the state's Senate would have confirmed her appointment following her disclosure. As labor commissioner, her primary responsibility would have been to direct the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the state's workers' compensation program.

Just a few short months ago, when Pawlenty announced Volz as his fifth cabinet nominee, he said she had "a unique combination of proven leadership ability and legal expertise that will bring both tough enforcement of our laws and a spirit of cooperation to encourage compliance."

At the time, Pawlenty said Volz's "extensive experience with labor and employment law, representing clients in matters of contract claims and construction law, has prepared her well to head the Department of Labor and Industry," which has a biennial budget of $228 million and employs about 390 people. Pawlenty added that Volz had "the right temperament and vision to ensure workplace safety while improving departmental efficiency and taxpayer value."

Now that Volz is out of the picture, Pawlenty is attributing to her the unpopular suggestion that the federal government take over enforcement of occupational health and safety laws in private workplaces in the state. Minnesota is one of 22 state-plan states and has administered its own occupational safety and health program since 1970. The administration claimed the move was part of efforts to pare down the state budget, although state officials now admit it won't save the state any money.

Labor leaders in the state fear that if the state's occupational health and safety program is given over to federal control, inspections would decrease, fewer fines would be issues, and, possibly, more injuries or fatalities would occur.

"The Pawlenty administration "would just like OSHA to be gone and out of the way," said Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, adding, "I think they just see it as an annoyance."

Hunter called Volz's resignation "the honorable thing" to do. "We need a commissioner who fully understands the department's important role in worker safety and in Minnesota's economy as a whole," he commented.

The first state lawmaker to call for Volz's resignation, Rep. Tim Mahoney, called the move to hand over occupational safety and health enforcement to federal OSHA "the dumbest idea I've ever seen." He claimed that if Pawlenty follows through with it, "he's sentencing 10 more people to die in Minnesota each year."

The administration argues that a takeover of the state system by federal OSHA will not make Minnesota workplaces less safe.

"We don't think we are sacrificing worker safety" with the plan, said Leslie Kupchella, the governor's spokeswoman.

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