From left, Jameson Dion, Chris Fox and Greg Crowley lead a discussion on furniture safety moderated by Doug Clark
From left, Jameson Dion, Chris Fox and Greg Crowley lead a discussion on furniture safety moderated by Doug Clark

HFA government advocacy update: Take the lead on safety

Take the lead on safety, HFA members tell industry

Three retailers of different sizes shared a common message at a Regulatory Summit on the furniture industry’s tip-over issue: Don’t wait for regulators to tell you how to do what’s right – take the lead yourself.

“The issue isn’t going away,” Greg Crowley, of Home Furnishings Association member Crowley Furniture & Mattress in the Kansas City area, told a roomful of manufacturing executives, “so it only makes sense to get out front on this and be the change you know is coming.”

Crowley’s comments, along with those from Jameson Dion of HFA member City Furniture and Chris Fox of Raymour & Flanigan, came during a conference focusing on product safety and organized by the American Home Furnishings Alliance on Oct. 2-3 in Colfax, N.C.

The panelists are long-time safety proponents, particularly where furniture tip-over is concerned. Crowley Furniture has partnered for years with Charlie’s House, a Kansas City nonprofit that promotes safe homes for children. Crowley distributes tip-restraint kits to customers and the public for use with clothing storage units.

City Furniture participates in the UL Stability Verification program, testing products to make sure they meet safety standards. The Florida-based retailer began proactively testing its furniture in-house 10 years ago. Safety extends beyond the store for City, which requires delivery drivers to get signatures from customers saying they have been informed of the tip-over dangers with some pieces of furniture.

Raymour & Flanigan ensures all casegoods it sells comply with ASTM requirements, according to CPSC-accredited labs. Raymour & Flanigan affixes warning labels to all casegoods, and customers must sign an information sheet at delivery attesting that they are aware of the risk of tip-overs and have been given a tip-restraint kit to minimize that risk.

‘Coaches and consultants’

Crowley said sales associates at his three stores now act as “coaches and consultants with consumers” to find out how the furniture will be used. “We want to know what their lifestyle is, what their family make-up is – are there any children in the home? – and how they plan on living with this furniture.”

Tip-overs of dressers and other clothing storage units can result in serious injuries – even death. Since 2000, incidents of furniture pulled over by children have been linked with at least 206 deaths. Most of the victims were younger than 6.

The HFA long has promoted awareness. Doug Clark, HFA’s government relations liaison and moderator of the retail panel’s discussion, asked what strategies other retailers might employ to educate their own customers about the problem.

Fox, director of quality assurance for Raymour & Flanigan in Liverpool, N.Y., said tip-over is the “elephant-in-the-room issue” that needs to be addressed. “We have customers coming in wanting to know if the furniture they’re about to buy is safe – or what they can do to make it safer,” said Fox. “And just as important, we have customers buying furniture who don’t know anything about tip-over safety. We need to be educating them just as much as the other (customers).”

The issue has received increasing state and federal attention. U.S. House lawmakers passed a bill last month that would mandate certain testing on dressers. The Stop Tip-Overs of Unstable, Risky Dressers on Youth Act of 2019 – better known in the industry as the STURDY Act – passed without opposition in a voice vote.

Some states aren’t waiting for tighter federal regulations. New York furniture retailers must comply with a new state law that requires clothing storage units to carry labels with a permanent tip-hazard warning and to include a tip-restraint device.

The law, named “Harper’s Law” after a 3-year-old girl who died from a furniture tip-over incident, requires clothing storage units to comply with a voluntary industry safety standard, ASTM F2057, which provides minimum stability standards.

Use a consistent message at every step

But testing products and educating the consumer are two different strategies, the retailers said. Dion, managing director of global sourcing for City Furniture, said retailers – especially larger ones like City and Raymour & Flanigan – should not rely solely on their delivery drivers to educate the consumer in their homes. “They’re an important part because they’re the last leg of the journey, but we’ve got 250 drivers,” Dion said. “It’s asking a lot for those 250 drivers to present the same consistent message to the public, especially with the kind of turnover you’d expect in that department.”

Crowley agreed, calling the effort retailers should be making as “a three-fold deal.”

“I’ve been in this business all my life,” said Crowley. “The side that sells, the prep side, the delivery side – every department thinks it’s the most important part of the process, but all three are just as important.”

“It starts with sales,” said Crowley. “We have to not be afraid to address it. We need to tell our customers about the issue. Not in a scary way, but in a way that informs. The prep people in the warehouse need to make sure that every top drawer has that (tip-restraint) bag in it. And the delivery team needs to be ready for tons and tons of questions. They need to be able to handle those questions and be on the same company page, same company message. When you’ve got these three departments working together, the opportunities for success are greatly enhanced.”

By Chris Andresen, vice president of Dutko Government Relations

Washington is in the grips of the House Democrats’ continued impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump. Recently, an intelligence community whistleblower described an interaction between President Trump and the Ukrainian president in which President Trump asked for help looking into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s business ties to a large energy company in Ukraine. President Trump followed that allegation by releasing a summary of the call and being very open about his intentions to investigate corruption.

That revelation prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to formally endorse the impeachment investigation, setting off a series of hearings and testimonies from connected parties, which is being run through the House Intelligence Committee. There is no formal impeachment vote scheduled, but that could happen before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, the House committees have begun preparing their best possible impeachment case, which would then be used for the House floor vote.

The process is different in the Senate where a trial would be chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that it would be a short trial and, with Republicans controlling the Senate and the process, the vote to convict would not pass. Only then might the two chambers be able to focus on legislative work again.

 

The tax correction

HFA has been involved with a “technical correction” related to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which created a new depreciation schedule for “Qualified Improvement Property” or QIP. The tax law consolidated the different types of improvement property under the single definition of QIP, with intent to assign this new category a 15-year recovery period, eligible for 100 percent bonus depreciation. The wording of the final bill, however, did not provide a recovery period, and as a result unintentionally makes QIP ineligible for 100 percent bonus depreciation. This has spurred the introduction of bipartisan corrective legislation in both the House and Senate. Passage, however, probably depends on Republicans and Democrats agreeing on a broader deal, including federal tax and funding priorities before the end of the year.

 

Furniture stability

The full House of Representatives passed the STURDY Act via voice vote in mid-September. The measure now moves over to the Senate. In the meantime, the Consumer Products Safety Commission is moving forward with a proposed rulemaking on furniture tip-over with details potentially coming later this year. In this effort, the commission has been testing several products to explore the potential hazards on the market. In recent weeks, it has announced several recalls of units that failed stability tests. The ASTM revision, which lowers the minimum height to 27 inches for clothing storage units covered by the stability standard, has gone into effect following a vote earlier this year. We are continuing to monitor this issue on several fronts, but retailers should not sell units that don’t meet the ASTM standard.

 

CPSC nominations

CPSC Commissioner Bob Adler is now the acting chairman since Ann Marie Buerkle left that post. He is a Democrat, and the 3-2 vote to elevate him to that position, with Buerkle’s support, came as a surprise. When Buerkle fully retires later this month, there will be a 2-2 partisan split. It is unclear how soon the White House will nominate someone to take her seat, given the many vacancies across the federal government.

 

Trade

The U.S. and Chinese trade delegations restarted in-person discussions in Washington Oct. 10. Both sides are looking for more progress following a summer of increased trade angst. The meeting also comes days before the current 25 percent tariff on $250 billion worth of goods (Lists 1-3) is scheduled to rise to 30 percent. We have seen these high-stakes discussions previously lead to increased tensions, so all eyes will be on the fallout. U.S. companies and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the tariffs, leading to more economic uncertainty.

The Chinese delegation may hesitate to make specific agreements outside of a pledge to purchase more U.S. agricultural products. Structural issues related to intellectual property enforcement and other matters will remain unsolved. President Trump is steadfast in his support of the tariffs and views them as the only means to force a favorable agreement.

 

EPA formaldehyde rule

Since March 22, all furniture containing composite wood products and formaldehyde resins was required to be labeled according to the Environmental Protection Agency TSCA Title VI emissions standards. HFA worked on this rulemaking for several years to ensure that retailers understand the new requirements under the EPA rule. The previous CARB standard only applied to products sold in California.

The EPA recently published its final technical corrections to the EPA rule, bringing it more in line with the current CARB standard. The EPA also published its intent to consider a list of 20 high-priority chemicals, including formaldehyde, for a TSCA risk evaluation. This could have further complications within the existing composite wood product rule, and we are continuing to determine next steps.

 

Upholstered furniture flammability

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Safer Occupancy Furniture Flammability Act (SOFFA), which would create a national upholstered furniture flammability standard based on the existing California Technical Bulletin 117-2013. It was passed via voice vote and could be on the House floor during the October work period. Democratic and Republican leaders on the committee discussed possible changes, but there is no indication on what changes would occur.

The Senate Commerce Committee also approved SOFFA through committee via voice vote, although Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked to be recorded as “no” votes. The Senate measure now moves to the full Senate for consideration, but timing is unknown.

This effort has been supported by a coalition of industry (including HFA), firefighter, consumer and environmental groups.

 

Hours of service

The HFA has long supported common-sense safety regulations for motor carriers, but we disagreed with the 2013 Hours of Service regulation. Recently, the Trump administration issued proposed changes to the existing Hours of Service regulation, which will allow for more flexibility in the trucking industry.

First, truck drivers could in the future use their 30-minute breaks as on-duty but not driving. An example would be when they are waiting for a truck to be loaded or unloaded. Currently, the drivers had to go “off duty.”

Under the proposed rules, drivers also could split their required 10 hours of off-duty time into two breaks, a seven-hour break for sleeping and another three-hour break when they choose. The current split is eight hours and two hours. Drivers could also take an off-duty break of between 30 minutes and three hours during a 14-hour driving window, if they take a full 10 hours at the end of that shift. Additionally, workers could also extend their 14-hour driving window by two hours if conditions are “adverse.” Finally, for shorter hauls, the rules also propose extending a trucker’s maximum driving time from 12 hours to 14 hours and moving the distance limit for drivers before they must take a break from 100 “air miles” to 150 “air miles.”

HFA has submitted comments in support of these proposed changes. Now, the Department of Transportation will consider all comments and publish a final rule at some point – likely in 2020.

 

ADA website accessibility

The Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving pizza chain Domino’s and allegations its website is not accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many industries, including furniture retail, viewed potential Supreme Court consideration as the opportunity to clear up any doubt about whether the ADA applies to websites. Courts have ruled that it does, and the U.S. Department of Justice has also affirmed that opinion.

However, in the absence of clear guidelines from DOJ on what is required for website accessibility, uncertainty remains in the business community. HFA has urged the DOJ to write guidelines so that retailers know exactly how to program and build their websites to accommodate all customers.

News of interest from Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Oregon.

Arkansas

The state’s motor fuels taxes increased on Oct. 1. For gasoline, the levy rose from 21.5 cents to 24.5 cents per gallon. For diesel, the jump was greater: from 22.5 cents to 28.5 cents per gallon.

Electric vehicles were not overlooked. The annual registration fee increased by $200 per electric vehicle and by $100 per hybrid vehicle. The previous base registration fees were $17, $25 and $30 depending on the weight and class of the vehicle.

California

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 5 on Sept. 18, putting into law the directives of last year’s “Dynamex” California Supreme Court ruling. It will classify more “gig economy” workers and contractors as employees eligible for overtime, medical coverage and other benefits. Several industries and CalChamber will continue to push for negotiated exemptions even after the law takes effect Jan. 1. If they aren’t excluded, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash vow to spend a combined $90 million to fund a referendum effort to overturn the law.

AB 2998 takes effect Jan. 1. The Bureau of Household Goods and Services says: “The sale and distribution of juvenile products, upholstered furniture, foam used in mattresses, as well as the use of new components of reupholstered furniture (collectively referred to as covered products) that contain specified flame-retardant chemicals at levels above 1,000 parts per million will be prohibited, effective January 1, 2020.” The bureau offers frequently asked questions here.

Connecticut

Minimum-wage workers pocketed a raise Oct. 1 and can count on further boosts every 11 months. The state-mandated hourly floor is now $11. It steps up to $12 on Sept. 1, 2020, $13 on Aug. 1, 2021, $14 on July 1, 2022, and $15 on June 1, 2023. Will it stop then?

Delaware

The state’s minimum wage bumped up from $8.75 to $9.25 per hour Oct. 1, but legislative efforts to schedule future increases failed earlier this year. Proponents are likely to try again in 2020.

Illinois

A revised law bars employers from asking about a job applicant’s salary history. Changes that took effect Sept. 29 are meant to eliminate the gender gap in employee compensation. The law also says employers can’t require employees to sign a pledge not to discuss their wages with co-workers.

“Violators of the amended Illinois Equal Pay Act can incur fines up to $5,000 for each impacted individual, as well as civil damages up to $10,000,” GovDocs reports. Employees would have up to five years to bring action.

Kansas

A potential legal battle over online sales-tax collections is advancing. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Sept. 30 that a policy set by the state revenue secretary “has not been lawfully adopted and is invalid.”

After the legislature failed to pass tax legislation this summer, Revenue Secretary Mark Burghart declared that state law empowered him to require out-of-state, online vendors to collect taxes on sales to Kansas residents. The state had been blocked by court rulings from enforcing the law before the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Burghart said.

However, the dispute focuses on Burghart’s decision against allowing a threshold. Other states, as a means of protecting small businesses, exclude a vendor’s first $100,000 of sales into a state, or more. South Dakota did, and its model was expressly approved by the Supreme Court. Some critics contend that policy set by Burghart would not be allowed.

Burghart defended his policy after Schmidt’s statement:

“For the past 29 years, there has been overwhelming legislative support for re-establishing fairness in the obligation to collect and remit Kansas taxes between out-of-state retailers and Kansas retailers. Notice 19-04 simply informs out-of-state retailers of the law that overwhelmingly passed the Legislature in 2003 that ensures the obligation of out-of-state retailers to collect and remit the taxes that are due and owing. The Notice does not reflect a change in policy, but only restates long-established statutory provisions regarding the duty to collect and remit Kansas taxes.

“Since the Wayfair decision, more than 3,200 out-of-state businesses have registered with the state to collect and pay taxes to Kansas. Almost 600 of those have registered since August 1, 2019, when the Notice was published. The Department of Revenue cannot select which laws it enforces. Kansas statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and unless deemed otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction, the Department is obligated to enforce the statutes enacted by the Legislature.”

Massachusetts

Legislators are pushing a furniture-related bill almost identical to a measure that was blocked by Gov. Charlie Baker in January. The measure, which was approved by the Senate, would prohibit the manufacture, sale or importation of any children’s product, bedding, carpet or residential upholstered furniture containing one of the 11 flame retardant chemicals named in the bill. It would provide a sell-through period until June 1, 2020.

Similar legislation was approved in the dying hours of the 2018 session. Baker greeted it with a “pocket veto” by declining to sign it. There was no time for legislators to attempt an override. This year, they intend to act sooner. The bill now moves to the House.

The Home Furnishings Association opposes the Massachusetts bill, instead supporting congressional action that would set a single national standard based on California TB117-2013, which sets a fire-safety standard that doesn’t rely on potentially dangerous chemical flame retardants.

New Jersey

Effective Jan. 1, 2020, employers in New Jersey will be prohibited from requiring job applicants to disclose their salary history, including prior wages, salaries or benefits, the National Law Review reports. Assembly Bill 1094 amends New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and explicitly bans employers from screening job applicants based on the applicant’s salary history. Employers may verify salary history if an applicant voluntarily provides his or her salary history.

New York

A similar measure to New Jersey’s takes effect in New York on Jan. 6, 2020. Employers will be barred from requesting, requiring or relying on wage or salary history from applicants or current employees seeking employment, continued employment or promotion.

Oregon

Payroll deductions begin Jan. 1, 2022, for Oregon’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave law. Starting in 2023, workers who earn at least $1,000 a year will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave annually for various health and family reasons. Benefits will depend on income but will range from about $50 a week to more than $1,250 a week.

Portland could move to bar the use of facial recognition technology in retail businesses, GovTech.com reports. If adopted, the measure would be the first to take aim at business use, rather than government use, of the technology.

“These are matters of privacy, consent and civil rights,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. “We need to take a strong stand that the automated surveillance state is not welcome in the city of Portland.”

However, there are arguably legitimate reasons to introduce this technology in retail settings.

“The exact number of retailers using facial recognition cameras in their stores is unclear. But Peter Trepp, the CEO of the facial recognition software company FaceFirst, told BuzzFeed News that ‘hundreds of (retail) locations, growing to thousands very soon,’ have been outfitted with the company’s facial recognition software as part of their stores’ overall security systems.”

There is commercial potential as well: “The many ways in which facial recognition can be used in retail were on display at the National Retail Federation’s annual expo in January (2018),” Bryan Person wrote for Forbes.com. “The California eatery CaliBurger, for example, is linking facial recognition to its loyalty program, a relatively safe bet since loyalty members have agreed to share personal data with the brand. The software, installed in ordering kiosks, recognizes registered members as they approach, activates their loyalty accounts and, based on previous purchases, can display their favorite meals (and maybe suggest seconds).”

A proposed policy in Portland could be introduced in November.

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