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Workers sue North Carolina to keep them safe from COVID on the job

A group of labor advocates has filed suit to compel the state to actually protect workers in the middle of a pandemic.

By Amy Lieu - December 11, 2020
Virus outbreak, school workers, food insecurity
Ruth Vazquez de Castillo assembles hot lunches in the kitchen Thursday, July 16, 2020, for the final meal distribution of Brownsville Independent School District's summer program at Pace Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas. More than 670,000 meals were distributed to local children since the program started back in March as the pandemic hit Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Labor groups have filed a lawsuit in North Carolina to force officials to ensure workers’ safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Raleigh News and Observer, the move comes after North Carolina’s Republican labor commissioner Cherie Berry refused to adopt workplace safety requirements, saying her department does not have the authority to do enact such rules. Her refusal forced several labor advocacy groups to file a petition in Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday in hopes to reverse the labor commissioner’s decision, according to the paper.

The groups behind the suit are the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, The Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County, and the NC AFL-CIO, which all “primarily advocate for the Latino immigrants that make up majority of workers in meat processing plants and agriculture in the state,” according to the News and Observer.

“The statutes giving rise to NCDOL’s authority were intended to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for North Carolina’s workers … This mission extends beyond preventing premature death due to workplace hazards. North Carolina statutes charge NCDOL with the protection of all working people,” the court filing read.

The conflict between the laborers and the state’s GOP-led labor department began in October, when the groups filed a petition asking the state to require employers to enforce social distancing, provide face masks, and disinfect the workplace, among other safety precautions.

The petition called for the North Carolina Department of Labor to “to put an end to the dangerous conditions and exercise its power to engage in rulemaking.”

“Workers throughout North Carolina, from all industries, age groups, and across racial and ethnic lines, are not safe at work because of the lack of enforceable COVID-19 workplace requirements,” the petition read.

Berry snubbed those calls, writing in a Nov. 9 letter, “While I am not dismissing the tragic deaths that have occurred as a result of this virus, statistically, the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.”

As the New and Observer noted, the worker groups claim in their court filing that the state’s labor department “does not provide any evidence, let alone substantial evidence, for its assertion that COVID-19 is not likely to cause serious physical harm.”

Despite Berry’s claims, as the outlet noted, a Dec. 7 report from the North Carolina Health and Human Services Department showed 302 total reported COVID-19 clusters at workplaces, 6,886 cases, and 31 deaths in the state.

Berry has been at odds with the state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over the coronavirus response.

Cooper issued mask mandates back in June for business owners, employees, and customers, the News and Observer reported earlier in December. Shortly after, he raised plans of an executive order with safety protections for laborers.

But Berry rebuffed Cooper, writing in an Aug. 31 letter: “Should you decide to issue this EO, I respectfully ask that you take care not to publicly overstate the role of the NCDOL regarding enforcement.”

After Berry’s pushback, along with that of his states’ Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments, Cooper chose not to go through with the executive order, the outlet wrote.

The lawsuit in Georgia is indicative of a larger problem: Across the country, workers have similarly been risking their health to stay in the workplace, even as coronavirus cases spike nationwide.

According to a UCLA Labor Center report, for instance, domestic workers in California are excluded from many legal protections that other workers are usually given. The Occupational Health and Safety Act, which protects workers from health and safety hazards, does not include domestic workers in the state, leaving them open to infection on the job, with no recourse if they become sick.

Undocumented farmworkers are also especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Since they work in the fields, usually in close proximity with others, social distancing is difficult, putting them at risk of contracting the virus. Seeking medical attention if they fall ill is also an issue, as many fear getting deported.

In South Dakota, meat plant workers have also been left to fend for themselves, after Donald Trump in April issued an executive order mandating meat-packing plants nationwide remain open.

Keeping the plants open has had disastrous results. In April, the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls alone recorded 518 infections in employees and 126 in people connected to the cases, making it the largest known virus cluster and forcing it to close at the time. Many of the plant’s workers belong to the city’s burgeoning immigrant community, demonstrating again how the pandemic has hurt the immigrant workers more broadly.

And just last month, Tyson Foods was accused in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging the company forced employees at one of its Iowa plants to work through the pandemic while supervisors gambled on who would get infected. The company later suspended those supervisors and said it would launch its own investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers at the federal level are trying to make it easier for companies to skirt responsibility if workers get sick, trying to force through Congress a liability shield that would protect those companies from lawsuits.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to pass a COVID relief bill without those liability protections, leaving the fate of that assistance up in the air.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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