Kennedy’s Role in the Senate

Aug. 26, 2009
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who passed away August 25 at age 77, began his career in the Senate in 1962, eventually authoring more than 2,500 bills. Of those bills, several hundred have become public law. From 1973 to 2009, 552 items cosponsored by Senator Kennedy became public law (for bills introduced prior to 1973, Senate records do not list cosponsors).

Throughout his Senate career, Kennedy championed the cause of quality health care for all Americans and improved working conditions for employees. In 2008, Kennedy was named one of the 50 most influential EHS leaders by Occupational Hazards magazine (now EHS Today) for his 40-plus years of advocating for workers’ rights and health and safety in the Senate.

Among the many landmark health-related laws enacted under his leadership and sponsorship are the Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 1986, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act of 1990, the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997, the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997 (HIPAA), the Children's Health Act of 2000, the Project BioShield Act of 2003, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2005, the FDA Amendments Act of 2007 and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.

In addition to championing healthcare reform, as long-time chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee of the Senate, Kennedy was a leader in creating legislation to combat workplace discrimination and sponsored or co-sponsored numerous bills related to education. Working with Senator Claiborne Pell during the 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Kennedy supported the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant. This program, which later became known as the Pell Grant in 1980, drastically increased the availability of grant aid to disadvantaged students. Without his efforts, I would not have been able to attend college.

Kennedy and Working Americans

In the early 1990s, Kennedy fought to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows workers to take unpaid leave to care for a new baby, their own serious illness or the serious illness of a child, parent or spouse. Since the law’s passage, more than 60 million workers have been able to take time off from work to care for a loved one or get medical treatment without fearing that they would lose their jobs.

Building on the success of the FMLA, Kennedy was the leading proponent of legislation to provide workers with paid sick days to address short-term health care and family caregiving needs. Most Americans assume that paid sick days are a right, but they’re not: Half of private sector workers do not have paid sick days that they can use to care for themselves or a family member who is ill. Kennedy introduced the Healthy Families Act. The legislation would guarantees workers up to 7 days of paid sick leave each year to care for their own medical needs and those of their family members.

Caring for family also means taking time to care for a child or sick relative in need. These needs often require flexible work schedules – but many workers are afraid to ask for flexible arrangements for fear of jeopardizing their jobs. Kennedy introduced the Working Families Flexibility Act to ensure workers have the right to request flexible work arrangements so they can both meet family obligations and do their jobs.

Kennedy consistently fought for the rights of women, including the right to equal pay for doing the same jobs as their male counterparts. In 2009, women still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women of color fared worse – African-American women received 67 cents and Latinas 56 cents.

“Working women must have a paycheck that works for them,” said Kennedy. “Economic security cannot be achieved without paycheck security, and paychecks should reflect the fair value of the job performed. For women, this means equal pay for equal work. Without it, they are less able to provide an economic safety net for themselves and their families, less able to purchase a home, less able to go to college or send their children to college.”

In 2007, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co. made it more difficult for workers to challenge all forms of pay discrimination, including discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability. Kennedy was a leader in passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to restore a fair rule for filing pay discrimination cases. The act became the first major legislation signed by President Barack Obama.

Enhancing Worker Safety

Kennedy was a long-standing champion of worker safety, taking a prominent role in improving safety for the nation’s miners.

After the tragedies at the Sago and Alma Mines in 2006, Kennedy successfully championed bipartisan mine safety reform legislation, the MINER Act, which became law later that year. The act was the most sweeping reform of the nation’s mine safety law in a generation. It guarantees miners updated mine technology, stricter safety standards and tougher enforcement.

Even after the legislation passed, Kennedy continued to lead the fight to protect miners. He pressed for additional mine safety reforms and serious investigations of mine safety disasters. His investigation of the 2007 Crandall Canyon mining disaster was the first to reveal the serious lapses by both the mine operator and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration that led to the deaths of nine miners and rescue workers.

Perhaps one of his greatest challenges and frustrations as a legislator was his ongoing battle to pass the Protecting America’s Worker’s Act. First introduced on April 28, 2004, Workers Memorial Day, “Protecting America's Workers" Act was aimed at expanding the Occupational Safety and Health Act's coverage to 8.4 million of public- and private-sector workers not covered by the act.

The bill also strengthened penalties for willful employer violations, expanded the public's right to know, protected whistle-blowers and required employers to provide safety equipment.

“On Workers' Memorial Day, we remember those who have died or been injured on the job in the past year. We renew our commitment to them and their families to do all we can to end the unsafe and unhealthy conditions that still plague so many workplaces across America,” said Kennedy when he announced the legislation.

He noted that while the country has made significant progress in protecting worker safety since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, “there is still a tremendous amount to be done.”

“We have a battle before us,” said Kennedy. “For as we know, too many companies are doing too little to deal with this crisis. They blatantly ignore the laws, but still they do not face jail time even when their actions or lack of action kills employees who work for them. Criminal penalties are so low that prosecutors are reluctant to pursue these cases.”

In 2004, the Act failed to secure the support it needed. In April 2007, despite an almost-certain veto by the Bush administration should the legislation make it to the White House, Kennedy, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health and Safety Subcommittee, reintroduced the Protecting America's Workers Act in the Senate, while U.S. Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Phil Hare, D-Ill., launched identical legislation in the House of Representatives. Again, the legislation went nowhere.

In what is perhaps the greatest tribute to Kennedy’s tenacity, the legislation refuses to die. On April 23, 2009, Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee, led again by Woolsey, chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, reintroduced the Protecting America's Workers Act.

In April, in a statement during a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the needs of families and the contribution they can make to improve the OSHA process, Kennedy said, “Enacting of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 was a major step in guaranteeing the basic right of workers to be safe on the job. Since the law was signed, however, we have not substantially amended it to improve worker protections.

“We have, however, learned much in the 40 years since OSHA was enacted and it is long past time to use this knowledge to make significant reforms,” he insisted. “We know that many workers are left out of the Act’s protections, and expanded coverage is essential. We know that whistleblowers are indispensable in bringing safety problems to light, but they won’t come forward unless they have strong protections. A HELP Committee report last year showed that even when employers’ violations of the Act result in workers killed on the job, the employers often walk away with just a slap on the wrist. Clearly, civil and criminal penalties should be increased.”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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