Backed by science, advocates legally challenge Labor Secretary Cherie Berry over COVID-19

Dr. David Wohl, UNC School of Medicine (Photo: UNC)

After the state Department of Labor in November rejected a petition to mandate emergency workplace rules, several North Carolina advocacy groups are asking the Wake County Superior Court for a judicial review of the denial.

“Anything we can do to mitigate the transmission of that virus from someone is really essential,” Dr. David Wohl, professor of medicine at the UNC-Chapel Hill said at the virtual press conference hosted by the petitioners on Thursday. “We need to do that especially at our workplace.”

Those most vulnerable at workplaces during COVID-19 are workers in the meatpacking, poultry, agriculture, and health care industry, many of whom often don’t have access to insurance and fear retaliation if they report their employers to authorities, the petition stated.

Wohl said that he’s disappointed by the department’s refusal to require safety measures for employers, which put frontline workers’ health at risk.

Currently, federal and state OSHA issue only guidance. not specific enforceable actions, according to the petition filed by the advocacy groups.

Wohl added that the scientific community’s public health statements have been clear; he dismissed the federal government’s claim that scientists and public health experts have yet to come up with the best recommendations for workers.

The petition was signed in October by five groups, the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, North Carolina State AFL-CIO, NC Raise Up, El Vinculo Hispano (The Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County), the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. (Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center which represents these groups, but had no role in the petition).

NC Department of Labor Secretary Cherie Berry (Photo: DOL)

As Policy Watch previously reported, state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry refused to acknowledge COVID-19’s toll on workplace safety. “While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus,” she wrote in response to advocacy groups, “statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.”

Esmeralda Dominguez, a representative of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry said through an interpreter that she was grieving over the death of a worker who got sick from COVID-19 after his employer failed to provide masks and required social distancing.

Since the start of February when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration started tracking COVID-related work hazard complaints, more than 1,200 OSHA-complaint cases have been investigated and closed, resulting in 17 onsite inspections, according to data published by OSHA dated November 22.

Even under the new Biden administration and the pending distribution of vaccines, advocates are still pressing the state agency for more actions.

“Vaccines are not going to solve the problem for us, and it doesn’t abdicate the commission and those responsible for making rules that make rules that protect other people with the physical, non-pharmacological and non-biological interventions that we know that work,” Wohl said.

North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman said the pandemic has exposed “racial disparities, economic disparities health disparities and disparities within this so-called democracy that accumulate and grow increasingly worse.”

As President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to enforce workplace standards and expand OSHA investigations, the advocacy groups plan to keep pressuring the DOL into action and work with North Carolina Labor Commissioner-elect Josh Dobson. The petition also included a series of rules for the DOL to consider, including physical distancing on the job.

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