Civil rights groups file federal complaint over NC Department of Labor’s failure to protect workers from COVID-19

In case you missed it, a group of civil rights organizations — including the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization of NC Policy Watch) — filed a complaint with the federal government yesterday over the North Carolina Department of Labor’s ongoing failure to adequately protect the state’s workers from COVID-19.

This is from a news release explaining the action:

North Carolina’s failure to engage in rulemaking to protect workers from COVID-19 or to investigate COVID-19 complaints violates the state’s obligations to operate at least as effectively as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an administrative complaint filed by civil rights and workers’ rights groups with federal OSHA said today.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, North Carolina Justice Center, and Southern Poverty Law Center, which collectively represent Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, NC State AFL-CIO, Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, the NC State Conference of the NAACP, Fight for $15 and a Union, and the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County, filed a Complaint About State Program Administration (CASPA) against the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) over its lack of enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of North Carolina (OSHANC), which requires the NCDOL to be at least as effective as federal OSHA in protecting workers.

The CASPA comes after the groups filed a petition with the NCDOL in October for a new rule to protect workers from COVID-19, which the agency rejected in early November. According to the complaint filed today, NCDOL has abdicated its legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of North Carolina workers during the pandemic, which has disproportionately hurt workers of color who are overrepresented in workforces with higher rates of COVID-19.

By the state’s own admission, there is a higher chance of workers’ exposure to COVID-19 in certain occupational settings. But because NCDOL arbitrarily decided these risks aren’t covered by OSHA standards, they have not adequately investigated COVID-related complaints or promulgated new rules to protect workers. At the same time, NCDOL reported that nearly one-third of workplace deaths in 2020 were related to COVID-19.

Read the complaint at this link.

The following are statements from groups involved in the case:

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: “North Carolina’s failure to engage in basic rulemaking is an abandonment of its public health and safety responsibilities that will have immediate harmful impacts on the health and well-being of thousands of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous workers across the state. We’re hopeful that this complaint results in the federal government advising the state to enact sensible safeguards that will protect workers from this deadly virus.”

Carol Brooke, Senior Staff Attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center: “The organizations raising these concerns with federal OSHA have seen firsthand what happened when NCDOL abdicated its obligation to enforce existing health and safety standards and the General Duty Clause, and to create new rules to protect workers from COVID. We call on federal OSHA to fully and quickly investigate this complaint so that North Carolina workers can work in safe and healthy workplaces free from recognized hazards.

Julia Solórzano, Staff Attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center: “All workers deserve a safe and dignified workplace, but the state has shirked its responsibility to safeguard this fundamental right. NCDOL’s failure comes at the expense of essential workers, who are predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant. These essential workers are employed on the frontlines to keep our country running and to keep food on the plates of North Carolinians. These workers are essential, not disposable. The agency must enforce COVID protections in the workplace.”

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