Rep. Payne, workforce protections advocate, dies at 77

Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, died March 6 of complications from colon cancer. He was 77.

First elected to the House in 1988, Payne served on the committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee where he voiced concerns for the safety of workers, and whether current laws and regulations were adequate enough to protect them.

Although perhaps not as well-known as some of his colleagues due to a quieter demeanor, Payne’s words carried weight in the House.

“He did his work with humility, and when he spoke, people listened,” Rep. George Miller (D-CA) said in a press release following the news of Payne’s death. “Working people across the country could always count on Donald to stand up for them when it came to their health, safety and fair treatment on the job.”

I always enjoyed listening to Payne speak during congressional hearings because he had an utterly disarming way of putting things into perspective.

Take the ongoing debate on regulations and their supposed job-killing requirements. During an Oct. 5 hearing in which OSHA administrator David Michaels spoke about the topic, Payne pointed out an imbalance in the discussion, noting the alleged devastating effects of the regulations were receiving more attention than what the regulations were truly meant to do: protect workers.

“I have really not heard so much in the past year or so about any regulation that goes to protect the individual, the person,” Payne said. “I thought that a philosophy was: ‘Individuals were important.’”

He went on to detail life before regulations, drawing allusions to working conditions found in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” (See the video below for his full comments.)

In addition to championing worker health and safety legislation, Payne was vocal in the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Affordable Health Choices Act and legislation that increased the minimum wage.

“Rep. Payne once stated, ‘There is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rapture,’” a statement from the late congressman’s office said. “In accordance with his civil approach and global humanitarian efforts, Rep. Payne would want us to carry on by defending against injustice and protecting human rights so that all mankind can pursue the excellence of the human potential.”

The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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