whistleblowerA 20-year-veteran of California’s workplace health and safety agency has filed a whistleblower complaint charging that the state’s Department of Industrial Relations is misusing state and federal funds designated for Cal/OSHA.

Garrett Brown, who retired in January of this year, filed the complaint yesterday with the California State Auditor. Brown spent his last 2½ years at the agency working as the Special Assistant to the Chief of the Division in Cal/OSHA headquarters in Oakland.

“An investigation by the State Auditor is needed because only trained accountants familiar with state operations and procedures will be able to penetrate what has been an opaque ‘black box’ of DIR’s handling of funds designated for Cal/OSHA, depriving the agency of millions of dollars needed to protect workers in California,” said Brown.

Cal/OSHA funds used for DIR

“DIR – which controls Cal/OSHA’s funding, budget and hiring – has levied excessive administrative fees on Cal/OSHA, has used Cal/OSHA funds to pay for DIR real estate and personnel used for departmental purposes, and has failed to use available resources in special state funds leaving Cal/OSHA understaffed, under-resourced, and unable to meet both federal performance benchmarks and the requirements of state law.”

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH or Cal/OSHA) draws no funds from California’s General Fund, but rather receives an annual grant from Federal OSHA and money from special state funds that assess a small surcharge on employers’ workers compensation insurance premiums as well as fees on operators of elevators, tramways, amusement rides and pressure vessels.

Cal/OSHA’s budget is controlled by the the Director of the DIR.

Conflicting information

Brown said that Cal/OSHA staff were given only partial and conflicting information about the the DIR’s handling of DOSH funds during his tenure in headquarters. If federal funds were used for activities unrelated to Cal/OSHA’s work, this would be a violation of the annual grant from Federal OSHA that DIR receives on DOSH’s behalf.

Brown has also referred his CSA complaint to Federal OSHA’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

The complaint contains 16 items describing “improper, and possibly illegal, use of DOSH funds” by DIR in three areas – budget and funding, real estate and personnel.

The allegations of misuse and mismanagement include:

  • DIR historically has charged Cal/OSHA a fee of 8% for administering DOSH funds, but since 2011 DIR’s fee has increased substantially, reaching 12% for the first six months of the current fiscal year, or an extra $2 million in fees for DIR and equal loss in funding to Cal/OSHA;
  • DIR has used DOSH funds -- $300,000 a year since 2011 – to pay for the rent for DIR’s information technology unit in Oakland, and mismanagement of office moves in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco has wasted DOSH funds;
  • DIR has failed to use available resources in the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Fund – which received a $13.3 million transfer in the current fiscal year – and large untapped balances in the Elevator Safety Fund – at a time when the Elevator Unit is understaffed while 35% of the state’s elevators’ permits have expired and the equipment remains uninspected.

Brown noted that this list of irregularities is “not exhaustive” and includes only items that Cal/OSHA headquarters staff were able to discover from the incomplete and infrequent reports from DIR on DOSH’s financial situation since 2011.

Misuse and mismanagement

“The lack of resources, caused by DIR’s misuse and mismanagement of Cal/OSHA funds, means that there are fewer compliance officers available to conduct on-site inspections, fewer inspections of high hazard workplaces where many low-wage and vulnerable workers are employed, fewer consultants to assist small employers, and fewer resources to develop new regulations to protect the health and safety of California’s workers,” Brown declared.

In February, Brown released a 20-page memo on the understaffing at Cal/OHSA and the adverse impact this is having in many areas of worker protections in California.