Small Business Focus: The regulatory road ahead

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 24, 2002


The distance between Main Street America and Washington, D.C. may not seem great, but from the perspective of small-business owners who must contend with miles of government red tape and endless federal regulations, it is a long and difficult road.

But a decision that emanated last week from the United States Supreme Court offered employers a spark of hope that maybe the worlds aren’t so far apart.

After more than a decade of bureaucratic barrages brought to bear by the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Washington may be heeding to the pleas of business owners to stop the rush of litigation spawned by the ill-defined law.

In a unanimous decision, the nation’s highest court sent shivers of fear rippling through the ranks of trial lawyers who view the ADA as a potential gold mine. The justices, in a landmark move, rejected an auto worker’s carpal-tunnel syndrome claim, saying the key question was whether the injury prevented the activities of daily life, not whether she could perform those tasks associated with her job.

By its decision, the court sharply narrowed the act, and chilled the prospects of many lawyers who were counting on loose interpretations by lower courts.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted: “The manual tasks unique to any particular job are not necessarily important parts of most people’s lives. … The central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job.”

This decision is not cause for rejoicing for small-business owners nor is it a setback for the disabled. It is an important clarifying moment, one of those rare occasions where employers and employees have an opportunity to view each other as key elements to each other’s success and allow common sense to prevail in the workplace.

One of the key reasons small-business owners feel that they are highly successful is due to their treatment of employees, customers and business associates, notes a recent NFIB national poll of small-business owners.

Happy, healthy workers flourish on Main Street America. Without them, there would not be some six million small U.S. businesses whose daily operations depend on their employees. Unfortunately, too many federal regulators and policymakers have developed the mindset that employers don’t care about their employees, thus Washington must intervene.

It’s refreshing to see that the Supreme Court-lawyers all- isn’t so far removed from Main Street. But the regulatory road that lies ahead of small firms remains long and filled with obstacles. Just waiting around the bend is something called ergonomics rules.

Even if, as rumors have it, the much-feared Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announces plans soon to use “non-regulatory” programs for musculoskeletal disorders, don’t expect rule-happy Washington to give up without a fight. One senator has already introduced a bill that would let OSHA negate any relief that voluntary efforts might offer, proving that the battle to protect Main Street will never truly end.

JACK FARIS is president of NFIB (the National Federation of Independent Business), the nation’s largest small-business advocacy group.