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NC Labor Department Chief Selling Out Workers

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Cherie Berry slashing fines for campaign cash

An investigation by the Charlotte Observer, also reported in the News & Observer, has uncovered special treatment for companies whose executives and managers donated to Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry's campaign for re-election:

For Berry's contributors, half of OSHA fines were reduced more than 70 percent. Reductions that large are far less common for most other companies, occurring in about 12 percent of inspections. --N&O, 10/9/2008

Perhaps the most important job of the Commissioner of Labor is enforcing OSHA regulations to protect workers who are injured on the job by punishing employers that break the law. Under Cherie Berry's leadership, companies cited for multiple and serious safety violations have had little to fear from fines - in exchange for campaign contributions:

HOUSE OF RAEFORD: Executives and managers of this poultry company have contributed $15,000 to Berry's campaigns. Since 2001, N.C. OSHA has cited the company for more than 60 serious violations -- some following chemical accidents that killed one worker and sent 17 others to the hospital. Inspectors proposed $117,000 in fines, but the fines were reduced to $26,500. --Charlotte Observer, 10/9/2008

The Observer investigation found that half of Commissioner Berry's campaign receipts came from executives and managers at companies investigated by her since her tenure began in 2001. Berry is also taking PAC money from employer groups:

Berry has also raised $17,000 from political action committees, including the N.C. Home Builders Association and the N.C. Construction Industry PAC. Most of the PACS represent industries that are accustomed to Labor Department inspections. --Charlotte Observer, 10/9/2008

Bob Hall, Director of Democracy North Carolina, had this to say about the Observer's findings of potential favoritism for contributors to Berry's campaign:

"It raises questions about whether people think they'll get special treatment -- and may in fact get special treatment -- because of their political contributions," he said. "It's something that should be examined and explained." --Charlotte Observer, 10/9/2008

AFL-CIO report shows state's fines among nation's lowest

According to the latest edition of the AFL-CIO’s annual report Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, North Carolina ranked 47th in the average fines levied by states against employers that violate health and safety laws.

The average fine levied by Berry's Labor Department in 2007 was $433, down from $529 in 2006.

"There is almost no consequence for employers who violate the law, even when workers are killed," AFL-CIO Safety Director Peg Seminario said in reference to the Carolinas.

Responding to the AFL-CIO report, released last spring to coincide with Workers Memorial Day, Commissioner Berry told the News & Observer in April that "the AFL-CIO report will not alter her approach to workplace safety."

Law to protect against retaliatory firings goes unenforced by Berry

North Carolina's Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) makes it illegal for employers to fire or otherwise punish employees for filing workers' compensation claims or for reporting unsafe working conditions.

REDA was passed after a fire at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, NC killed 25 workers in 1991 because the plant owner chained shut the exits.

Unlike most states, REDA provides for paid staff at DOL to investigate complaints of retaliation. The Employment Discrimination Bureau is charged with conducting these investigations, but its ability to do so has been curtailed by budget cuts of 25% under Berry's leadership.

According to the results of an investigation conducted by the Charlotte Observer in September:

Of the roughly 800 people who file REDA complaints each year, about 1 percent get their jobs back. North Carolina has not taken a REDA case to court on behalf of a worker in seven years. And investigators sometimes dismiss cases without interviewing workers. --Charlotte Observer, 9/14/2008

That's nine workers, on average, who get their jobs back - out of 800 complaints filed each year.

“I see retaliation every single day in the work force,” said Charlotte lawyer Mark Sumwalt, who has represented hundreds of clients who alleged retaliation after filing workers' comp claims. “ … People get hurt and then fired the next day. It's just that blatant.” --Charlotte Observer, 9/14/2008

Berry: Labor Commissioner is "partner to business"

The choice for who will lead the North Carolina Department of Labor for the next four years could come down to which philosophy voters think best describes what a Labor Commissioner should be - an enforcer of labor laws or a tool for business interests.

The News & Observer ran this story, which has each candidate for Labor Chief in their own words. Here is current Republican Commissioner of Labor, Cherie Berry:

"I have a proven record of success," [Berry] said.

"[My approach] also helps businesses with their bottom line," said Berry, who has been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "And that's critical, critical during these stressful economic times, to help our businesses be profitable in every way we can."

"In the past, companies wouldn't just pick up the phone and ... say come out and help us," [Berry] said. "But they do now. ... And that's so important."

Here is Berry's opponent, Democrat Mary Fant Donnan, about what North Carolinians should expect from their Commissioner of Labor:

"The position is about being balanced and focused on the best interests of the state and looking at both sides of that equation," [Donnan] said.

"Folks go to work each day, and their families want to know that they're coming home at the end of the day and they're coming back intact," Donnan said.

Charlotte Observer editorial cartoon on Cherie Berry