Commentary, News

“Must read” news story details NC Labor commissioner’s kid gloves treatment of health and safety violations

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

If you have a subscription to Raleigh’s News & Observer or the Charlotte Observer (or know someone who does), be sure to check out this morning’s big business section report on North Carolina’s longtime Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry entitled “After workers die, North Carolina shields many employers from biggest penalties.”

After providing the details of a horrific workplace fatality and the pitiable sum that the employer was ultimately fined for a preventable death, the story puts it this way:

Nearly half a century after Congress created the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect working men and women, a chasm persists between the enforcement approach of some conservative labor chiefs such as Berry and those who follow the traditional conviction that a heavier hand is needed to deter negligence.

The story goes on to explain that the kid gloves treatment often accorded to businesses with dangerous workplaces is something that coincides neatly with Berry’s longstanding hostility toward safety and health inspections — which, in turn, is something that appears to stem from her own days as a business operator prior to her election to the DOL post in 2000:

A self-made entrepreneur, Berry was irked that an OSH inspector slapped her firm with $550 in fines after examining its factory in the late 1990s and at the attitude of an inspector during a followup visit as she ran for labor commissioner in 2000. A Republican who turns 73 Dec. 21, she tends to be opposed to heavily penalizing employers.

On April 2, she announced that she will leave office when her fifth term expires in January 2021. She described her biggest accomplishment as sending the public the message “that we’re not a regulatory agency so much as we’re an agency that will partner with them and will help them achieve safe workplaces.”

Berry also has said for years that she wants to partner with businesses. Toward that end, she went so far as to refuse a federal order to raise the state’s penalties for employer workplace violations.

The North Carolina Justice Center, in a report to be released in coming days, has now traced how rarely Berry’s OSH has hit its business partners, even after fatalities, with its stiffest penalty – for those that willfully, or knowingly, put workers in harm’s way.

The liberal social-action group, whose broad mission includes advocating for workers’ rights and safety, analyzed the penalties OSH meted out after examining 247 job-related deaths during the six years ending Sept. 30, 2018. (The figure does not include 60% to 70% of the state’s on-the-job deaths that were not in OSH’s jurisdiction, including those in traffic accidents, homicides, suicides and fatalities of independent contractors, as well as deaths at farms and low-hazard businesses with 10 or fewer employees.)

OSH inspections after the deaths led to 13 citations for willful violations against nine employers, each carrying a maximum penalty of $70,000, said the report made available to McClatchy. But nine of the citations against five companies were later dropped.

In other words, only four employers faced the harshest penalty out of more than 240 firms with fatalities, the group said.

The story goes on to report that North Carolina stands out nationally for its lax safety and health enforcement approach:

Data from a sampling of eight state-run workplace safety agencies’ enforcement of the most flagrant employer negligence, obtained through a public records request to the federal OSHA, shows how North Carolina lags behind some states.

During fiscal years 2016 through 2018, North Carolina’s OSH unit issued $337,950 in penalties for willful violations. Three states with lower populations — Washington, Minnesota and Oregon — respectively levied fines for willful violations totaling $4.1 million, $571,120 and $516,250 in those years, according to the data. North Carolina ranked sixth of the eight states in total fines.

The bottom line: The report makes clear once more what advocates and analysts have been saying for most of the past 19 years — namely that Berry’s two-decade tenure as Labor Commissioner has been a dark and ineffective one when it comes to protecting workers on the job. Her announcement that she will be retiring next year is extremely welcome news.
Note: The North Carolina Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

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