Author

Commentary

Cherie Berry

It’s a brave new world in North Carolina, where worker fatalities don’t count unless the NC Department of Labor actually investigates them. The News and Observer’s piece yesterday documented another instance of NCDOL’s practice of distancing itself from addressing critical issues facing workers in our state. Last fall, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry refused comment on how her department could help workers routinely cheated out of wages and benefits because of misclassification as independent contractors.

Now Berry’s office is playing down serious health and safety problems in workplaces across North Carolina by only reporting publicly on a fraction of the workplace fatalities that happen each year. Ironically, the worker misclassification problem that NCDOL didn’t want to discuss is integrally related to these underreported fatalities. The deaths of workers who have been improperly treated as independent contractors are not investigated, and therefore will not be reported on, by NCDOL.

Several legislators have taken note, including bipartisan sponsors of the Fair Competition and Employee Classification Act (SB 576), the Employee Fair Classification Act (SB 694), and the House’s Employee Fair Classification Act (HB 482). These bills propose a variety of reforms, including making misclassification illegal, authorizing action by licensing boards, and requiring notice to workers of their status and their rights. One common feature among all the bills is the desire for the Department of Labor to play a role in the investigation and enforcement of worker misclassification. Should that happen, the number of officially reported fatalities will doubtless rise. And at the same time, those workers will be covered by both worker’s compensation insurance and North Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states that “each employer shall furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Commentary

Workers carrying banana peppers at Kenda Farms 2003 (PBP)Our friends at Student Action with Farmworkers are very busy this week, sponsoring and promoting events for Farmworker Awareness Week. The schedule of events, posted here, shows the range of issues important to the people who harvest our food. Films highlighting farmworkers’ stories and dreams for the future show the rich heritage and cultural contributions brought to North Carolina by farmworkers who have traveled from near and far. Through discussions of immigration policy we learn why broad and inclusive immigration reform is critical to providing farmworkers with a voice in the workplace and a path to permanency. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs‘ long sleeve shirt drive is a stark reminder of the dangers of pesticide exposure in the fields. A presentation on current laws impacting farmworkers exposes the doctrine of agricultural exceptionalism, which affects farmworker eligibility for everything from worker’s compensation benefits to collective bargaining. Check out one of the great opportunities for a chance to learn more about the more than 130,000 farmworkers and their family members in North Carolina!

Commentary

Three workers were killed and one was gravely injured after falling from a scaffold which collapsed yesterday at the Charter Building in downtown Raleigh. A Department of Transportation worker was also killed yesterday in Wayne County. Construction and transportation are some of the most hazardous jobs in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Labor. Agriculture and manufacturing also lead the list of dangerous industries.

The NC Occupational Safety and Health Administration (NC OSHA) had a five year goal to reduce the construction fatality rate by 5% by the end of Fiscal Year 2013, which they achieved. Unfortunately, since the end of that program, it appears that construction deaths have been on the rise again.

More than 20 years ago, North Carolina was reeling from the deaths of 25 workers at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC. We put into place important reforms to encourage workers to make health and safety complaints and to protect them when they do. We’ve made a lot of strides as a state to improve worker safety, but when we observe Worker Memorial Day at the end of April we will remember that safe workplaces are still not the reality for all North Carolina workers.

Commentary

Working PoorOne of the great myths of the American policy debate is that poor people are poor because they don’t (or won’t) work. While it’s true that unemployment is still a huge problem in many places, it’s also true (and increasingly so) that work is no panacea — especially for people of color.  This is especially and tragically true in states like North Carolina.

For the latest confirmation of this harsh reality, be sure this morning to check out a this new data-rich report by the Working Poor Families Project entitled “Low-income working families: The racial/ethnic divide.” The report  documents how race and ethnicity factor into the poverty of working families and, among other things, highlights the widening gap between white and minority families since the start of the Great Recession. It also looks at differences by geography. Here are the key findings:

  • Among the 10.6 million low-income working families in America, racial/ethnic minorities constitute 58 percent, despite only making up 40 percent of all working families nationwide.
  • The economic gap between white and all minority working families is now 25 percentage points and has grown since the onset of the recession.
  • There are 24 million children in low-income working families and 14 million, well over half, are racial/ethnic minorities.
  • Over 50 percent of Latino, low-income working families have a parent without a high school equivalency degree, compared with 16 percent of whites.
  • Working families headed by minorities have higher incomes in the Mid-Atlantic region, Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the Northeast, compared with minority working families in the upper Midwest and Mississippi Delta regions

Sadly, North Carolina doesn’t fare as well as the “Mid-Atlantic” region. According to the report, more than half (55%) of working families in our state who are racial and ethnic minorities fail to bring home a true “living income” — i.e 200% or more of the official federal “poverty” threshold.  The national average is 47.5% for racial and ethnic minorities. The report also highlights North Carolina’s recent repeal of the state Earned Income Tax Credit as a contributor to this deplorable situation.

Click here to read the entire report. State-by-state data can be found on page 14.

Commentary

Employers reduce labor costs by misclassifying workers who should be on their payroll as employees, and instead calling them independent contractors. This employer payroll fraud was exhaustively documented by Mandy Locke and her team of reporters in the News & Observer’s series “Contract to Cheat” last fall. It costs the state millions of dollars in unpaid payroll taxes, leaves our unemployment insurance system without revenue to cover unemployed workers, and deprives workers of health insurance,

One of the most damaging consequences of employer payroll fraud is that injured workers are without workers’ compensation insurance. By purchasing so-called “ghost worker” policies, employers can avoid providing real coverage to their workers. Too often, this practice takes place in dangerous industries like construction, which just last year experienced 19 worker fatalities in North Carolina.

Tracking down what appears to be a negligible problem with worker’s comp claims is a misdirected effort. There are many things the General Assembly could do to combat payroll fraud, including worker’s compensation fraud, including increasing penalties for employers who violate the law, beefing up state agency enforcement and collaboration, and providing better enforcement tools such as stop work orders.