Web site supplies tailor-made law data for business

The
Labor Department practice of posting in-depth, customized information on its Web site is a
model for other agencies to follow, Labor officials said.


The public can examine issues in labor law at the Labor’s Employment Laws
Assistance for Workers and Small Businesses (ELAWS) site at http://www.dol.gov/elaws/ and get answers tailored to
their situations by a series of questions.


An employer, for example, can click on the ELAWS Family and Medical Leave Act Employer
Advisor to find out whether the company is covered under the act.


First question: As an employer, are you engaged in commerce or in an
industry or activity affecting commerce?


If the answer is yes: During the current or preceding calendar year, have you employed
50 or more employees for each working day of 20 or more calendar workweeks of either year?


If yes, you are covered by the act. If no, you are asked whether you represent a public
agency. If yes, you are covered. If no, are you a private or public school? If yes, you
are covered; if no, you are not.


Labor originally created the ELAWS advisory site using pages linked by Hypertext Markup
Language, but found it difficult to maintain, said Mario DiStasio, a Labor senior policy
analyst. The agency has switched to Exsys Professional 5.1 software from MultiLogic Inc.
of St. Paul, Minn. The software supports the development of knowledge-based expert systems
using a plain English, rule editor interface.


Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has taken the technology a step
further, not just as a tool to supply data to the public but to gather information as
well.


Mine operators and contractors can use the ELAWS site to electronically file the
Quarterly Mine Employment and Coal Production Report Form 7000-2. MSHA requires companies
to file the form.


Once the form is submitted, the MSHA e-mails back a receipt acknowledging the
form’s arrival, DiStasio said.


The department needed power to run such an interactive system, DiStasio said. The
server is an NEC computer Systems quad 200-MHz Pentium Pro with 1G of RAM and four 9G hard
drives. It also has a RAID Level 5 storage system, the highest level of redundancy
available, DiStasio said.


The extra hard drives keep the system running if the primary hard drive crashes. They
also prevent the loss of data submitted by users, DiStasio said. The redundancy is
especially crucial for uninterrupted electronic filing of forms. The agency doesn’t
want to tell someone a form was lost, DiStasio said.


The NEC server cost $45,000; hardware and software together cost less than $100,000, he
said.


MSHA will eventually let employers use the ELAWS site to file injury reports, which
will hold medical and other personal data that will have to be protected, DiStasio said.


Right now, the quarterly report data is stored on the NEC server and uploaded to the
database, DiStasio said.


Because the form does not contain proprietary information, sophisticated security
measures were not needed, he said.


When MSHA adds specific injury reports, the data from those forms will not be stored on
the file server but on a database server a couple of layers below it. A firewall will
separate the public from the Web server; the Web server then talks to a proxy server,
which is linked to the database server, he said.


ELAWS runs under Microsoft Windows NT Server.


The interactive portion of ELAWS is written in Perl. The database management system is
Microsoft SQL Server.


It is critical that Labor keep the information on the ELAWS site fresh, said Roland
Droitsch, deputy assistant secretary for policy. Labor administers 180 statutes, which is
a fairly substantial field, he said. The statutes could eventually be part of the ELAWS
site.


“We don’t have the version control with PC-based software,” Droitsch
said. When Congress changes the pension laws, for example, Labor just updates its Web
page, rather than mailing paper versions or CD-ROMs to employers.


When a law is changed, Labor can always take it off the site to avoid giving the public
bad information, DiStasio said.  

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