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.”