Rep. Lloyd Smucker Crusades Against the Federal Agency Investigating His Own Family’s Drywall Business

Smucker’s family company racked up at least seven OSHA violations for worker safety. Now, he’s trying to roll back worker protections in Congress.

UNITED STATES - MAY 24: Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., questions OMB Director Mick Mulvaney during a House Budget Committee hearing in Longworth Building titled "The President's FY2018 Budget" on May 24, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Lloyd Smucker questions OMB Director Mick Mulvaney during a House Budget Committee hearing in Washington D.C., on May 24, 2017. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

In practically all campaigns of every ideological stripe, politicians pledge to create jobs. Beyond the rhetoric, though, a deep divide is taking shape in Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District — one that pits two very different visions and track records on the type of workforce that will fuel America’s future against each other.

The incumbent in the Lancaster-area race, freshman Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who amassed a fortune in the local construction industry, is facing a challenge from Democratic candidate Jess King. For her part, King was the executive director of a nonprofit that helped local entrepreneurs build sustainable business models with a focus on serving the broader community.

Both candidates have experience creating jobs, but they propose dueling frameworks for how the economy should maximize employment for Americans. Only one of the candidates, however, is accused of maximizing employment — and profit — at the expense of American workers’ safety.

In his first two years in Congress, Smucker has taken an approach that decidedly favors business owners, working to weaken Labor Department regulations and labor unions, as well as promoting an increased reliance on seasonal foreign workers in jobs such as construction. As it turns out, Smucker’s legislative agenda reflects a business career centered on a similar approach, according to government records and lawsuits reviewed by The Intercept.

Over three decades, Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s family drywall business has racked up penalties from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for serious safety violations.

Over three decades, Smucker’s family drywall business has racked up penalties from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for serious safety violations, creating a work environment that one employee claimed led to an accident that gave him significant injuries.

In contrast, King has managed several nonprofits devoted to local job growth, helping entrepreneurs pitch investors, secure loans, and learn how to create businesses that serve broad goals in the community. King’s devotion to high-quality, high-paying jobs is apparent in her campaign. She is one of the only candidates in the country whose campaign staff is organized and represented by a labor union.

In their first debate last week, Smucker belittled King’s ideas for infrastructure spending, “Medicare for All” health care, and debt-free public college. “It’s the private sector that creates jobs, not the government,” said Smucker.

King argued, “I have been an entrepreneur in nonprofits. [I] have started and grown three different nonprofits, and have had the struggles and challenges of signing people’s paychecks, coming up with the money.”

Smucker dismissed the experience, claiming that his work in the construction business was more valuable. “It’s different when your own money’s on the line,” he retorted.

In his campaign materials, Smucker provides a simple formula in line with the mantras of the modern Republican Party: In order to foster prosperity, cut the red tape that stifles growth, reduce taxes, and deport undocumented immigrants. Like many business leaders who run for office, Smucker has made his own record on job growth central to his campaign. In his television commercials, he dons a hard hat on job site tours with workers, while a narrator touts his record of creating jobs “right here” in Pennsylvania. “Lloyd Smucker: father, job creator, tax fighter,” the ad declares.

But government records, lawsuits, and the legislative agenda championed by Smucker depict a very particular model of private sector growth that serves the interests of business owners at the expense of higher wages and workplace safety.

In Congress, Smucker supported a range of legislation that would allow companies to pay lower wages, weaken labor unions, and avoid safety regulations.

In Congress, Smucker supported a range of legislation that would allow companies to pay lower wages, weaken labor unions, and avoid safety regulations, including a special measure to provide corporations with as many as 85,000 temporary, low-skilled, foreign laborers to work in non-farm positions such as home construction.

He has taken particular aim at the Labor Department’s ability to penalize companies for lax safety procedures. He voted for bills to repeal safety regulations and asked the Labor Department to scale back what he called the “punitive” approach of OSHA enforcement.

Smucker has had his own run-ins with OSHA. Records show that the freshman lawmaker’s family drywall and construction business has a long history of paying OSHA fines and has been sued over its lax safety practices. The drywall firm, Smucker Company, was founded by Smucker’s siblings in 1972 and is still controlled by his family. Smucker himself previously served as the owner, but sold his stake a decade ago. The nonunion construction company is currently managed by his brother Merv Smucker.

Under Lloyd Smucker’s management, the firm expanded rapidly, moving from residential buildings to large commercial projects. Revenue jumped from $13 million to $21 million between 2003 and 2004, according to one account in the Central Penn Business Journal. He took advantage of a state tax incentive program as the company grew, which allowed the firm to defer property taxes on its headquarters.

Some of the dynamics behind the company’s meteoric growth are laid bare in court filings.

In 2010, a worker named Brian Zern was badly injured on a church construction site that the Smucker Company had been contracted to build. According to a lawsuit filed by Zern, the Smucker Company subcontracted the work to men who did not follow basic OSHA safety regulations on drywall installation. The subcontracted workers dropped a 50-pound piece of drywall on Zern, fracturing his ribs, clavicle, radius, and distal humerus, causing injuries to his lungs and kidneys.

Zern accused Smucker Company of negligence and violations of OSHA safety standards. After the incident, the subcontractor on the project, including several of the workers involved in mishandling the drywall, allegedly disappeared to Mexico, prompting the subcontractor’s insurance company to file suit to remove itself from covering Zern’s injuries.

Though the suit was settled in 2013, it was just one of many times the Smucker Company has had run-ins with OSHA, including citations for failing to follow OSHA regulations. Labor Department records show at least seven safety violations over the last decade. In 1991 and 1999, while Lloyd Smucker still managed the company, the firm was cited for serious OSHA violations.

In late September, OSHA opened yet another safety inspection of the firm. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

On Capitol Hill, Smucker, a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, which oversees labor issues, has used his federal office to critique the agency that has long scrutinized his family’s company.

Last November, Smucker questioned Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta over workplace safety enforcement practices, noting that he has heard from employers that they “are concerned about the approach that OSHA has taken over the past number of years, where it’s more punitive rather than collaborative.”

“Rep. Smucker’s attention to federal regulations, including those set forth by OSHA, is a result of his background as a small business owner, a township supervisor, and a state senator,” wrote Bill Jaffee, a spokesperson for Smucker, in a statement. “He’s heard from constituents on regulatory reform for years, consistent with a Republican agenda for literally decades.”

Jaffee added, “We’d clearly and categorically reject any insinuation that any of these actions create a conflict of interest or are self-serving in some regard.”

In 2017, Smucker supported an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, to defund an OSHA rule adopted the year before that updated injury reporting requirements. Smucker also backed two Congressional Review Act measures designed to repeal Labor Department regulations from the previous administration. One required employers maintain accurate records of serious work-related injuries on site for five years. The other required companies bidding for federal contracts to disclose major safety violations and other labor violations.

Smucker is the original sponsor of the Department of Labor Accountability Act, a bill to allow the labor secretary to unilaterally remove civil servants. The measure is similar to other bills that would give Trump administration officials more authority to fire staff.

He is also the sponsor of several bills meant to weaken labor unions and encourage immigrant labor on construction sites. Smucker is the sponsor of a national right-to-work law, an effort that would prohibit union-only employment opportunities. Smucker’s immigrant labor legislation is backed by the Associated Builders and Contractors, a notoriously anti-union lobbying group representing major construction firms. The umbrella organization counts Smucker Company as a member. The ABC, as the group is known, is also a major contributor to Smucker’s campaign.

“There are two business models, especially on the construction side. One is through investment in human capital that is largely union, through apprenticeship and job training,” said Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “The other is to make as much as money as they can,” Price said. “That behavior on the part of firms is to shift job site safety to other firms, subcontractors, which can end up with people getting hurt.”

The two approaches to job creation have also created a stark contrast in financial wealth.

Smucker owns an investment portfolio worth at least $1.2 million, according to ethics disclosures, and loaned his own campaign $590,000. King, on the other hand, has no investment portfolio, does have student loan debt, and earned a modest salary at her economic development nonprofit.

Correction: October 17, 2018, 5:57 p.m. EST
An earlier version of this story stated that Jess King supported tuition-free public college. She supports debt-free public college.

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