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A fitting conclusion to two decades of neglect

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NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (Photo: NCDOL)

In one of her final acts, outgoing NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry declines to help protect workers from COVID-19

It shouldn’t and doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Some things in the world of 21st century policy and politics – President Donald Trump telling outrageous lies, State Sen. Phil Berger blocking the expansion of health coverage to hundreds of thousands of struggling North Carolinians, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr always making sure to look out for Number One – are as predictable as the sunrise.

And so when it came to light in recent days that North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry – “the elevator lady” [2] – was taking a hands-off approach toward protecting the state’s vulnerable frontline workers from exposure to the coronavirus (not to mention all the friends and relations with whom they come into contact), it felt utterly predictable.

Indeed, after two decades in which Berry has done little for the millions of people whom she’s supposed to serve as the state’s top enforcer of workplace safety rules, it seems fitting that she would end her career by telling workers that they are, as usual, on their own. Berry is retiring when her fifth term ends in a few weeks.

In case you missed it, Berry’s latest legal raspberry to the state’s workers came when she rejected a request [3] from an array of nonprofit advocates that the Labor Department promulgate emergency rules to address the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces across the state. (Disclosure: The North Carolina Justice Center – parent organization to NC Policy Watch – was among the groups spearheading the request).

The original request was filed in October and it spelled out in great detail why such rules are both fully within the Labor Department’s charge and desperately needed. (Explore the 15 page petition and 54 pages of exhibits [4].)

Just as the labor department would act to prevent an employer from, say, locking hundreds of people into a tiny fire-prone sweatshop or requiring workers to handle toxic chemicals without any kind of protective equipment, it makes obvious sense that it would institute reasonable rules to protect workers from the workplace spread of a deadly virus.

As Hunter Ogletree with the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center explained in a news release [5] that accompanied the October request for rulemaking:

Since the beginning of this pandemic, workers across North Carolina, especially workers of color in food systems industries like meat and poultry processing, have risked their lives on a daily basis for the sake of our economy. This rule will ensure that workers receive the protections they deserve.”

As has been her wont for 20 years, however, Berry rejected the request out of hand, saying that developing such a rule is outside her legal authority because – we are not making this up – COVID-19 isn’t a serious enough threat.

This is from Berry’s official reply to the rulemaking petition:

While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.”

Earth to Commissioner Berry: The virus is exploding in workplaces throughout the state and nation. Reports indicate [6] that thousands of people have been sickened and that 20 or more deaths have resulted from workplace infections in North Carolina alone. Indeed, the original petition notes that 80% of current workplace safety complaints in North Carolina now are related to COVID-19. What’s more, as the petition also notes, many of the frontline workers most at-risk — low-income workers of color — tend to the kind of people least likely to come forward for fear of losing their jobs.

How can that not be an occupational hazard?

Tragically however, averting her eyes from such distressing facts has long been Berry’s stock-in-trade. As multiple observers have documented down through the years, Berry has long acted as the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse [7] – an unapologetic apologist for bosses who purports to work for the rank-and-file.

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Josh Dobson

As North Carolina AFL-CIO president MaryBe McMillan told me yesterday, expectations of Berry have fallen to such depths that her non-response to the COVID crisis was not surprising. “She’s been so derelict in her duties for so long that one almost grows numb to it,” McMillan said.

Of course, as noted, Berry’s time in office will, blessedly and belatedly, end in the coming weeks. After two decades in which the state’s chief elected advocate for workers has, effectively, mailed it in as a tool for the people who employ them, a new person – four-term Republican state representative, Josh Dobson [9] – will take office in January.

While Dobson’s rise could signal a turnaround in the somnambulant department’s response to issues like the COVID crisis, his endorsement in the fall election [10] by the state’s most conservative employer lobby group, the National Federation of Independent Business, presents cause for concern.

In the end, after two decades of neglect, one can only hope that we have not replaced the “elevator lady” with the “elevator man.”