Cheri Berry’s stain on the N.C. Department of Labor is still visible, despite a new face in the state’s elevators these days.

The former labor commissioner retired from her position at the end of 2020; in November, she wrote that the Department of Labor would not add additional regulations to keep COVID-19 from spreading among workers, stating the virus “has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.” 

Berry’s claim was proven false by her own commission: in 2020, 26 of the 91 reported workplace deaths in North Carolina were specifically due to COVID-19. It was the highest number of workplace deaths in the last 10 years.

Because of this, three civil rights law groups filed a federal complaint Tuesday with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), arguing the state did not meet the standards of operating “at least as effectively” as the federal administration.

“Through the end of October 2020, nearly 4,000 persons filed complaints with NCDOL about COVID issues,” the group wrote in the complaint. “NCDOL only issued citations to five of those, and they were for non-COVID related problems. In contrast, as of November 19, 2020, federal OSHA had conducted 244 inspections related to COVID-19 and issued proposed penalties totaling $3,301,932.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, North Carolina Justice Center, and Southern Poverty Law Center previously filed a petition with the department in October to address the need for new regulations to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. This is when Berry told them no new regulations were needed. The three law groups represent a handful of worker’s rights organizations: Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, NC State AFL-CIO, Western North Carolina Workers’ Center, the NC State Conference of the NAACP, Fight for $15 and a Union, and the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County.

“North Carolina’s failure to engage in basic rulemaking is an abandonment of its public health and safety responsibilities that will have immediate harmful impacts on the health and well-being of thousands of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous workers across the state,” Mark Dorosin, managing attorney of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that this complaint results in the federal government advising the state to enact sensible safeguards that will protect workers from this deadly virus.”

Commissioner Josh Dobson, a Republican like Berry, came into the role in January and kept the majority of Berry’s senior leadership. In the January summary of 2020 workplace deaths, Dobson said the commission would work to combat COVID-19 in the workplace but has not disavowed Berry’s statement.

“Given NCDOL’s abdication of its responsibilities to address the impacts of COVID-19 on workers, its refusal to revisit the denial of rulemaking by the previous Commissioner, and the state’s troubling history regarding worker safety (including the federal takeover of the state program following the catastrophic Hamlet fire in 1991), it is critical that an investigation of the allegations below begin immediately,” the groups said in the complaint.

The groups hope the complaint will launch an investigation into the N.C. Department of Labor, or at least push Dobson to take the concerns more seriously. After all, it’ll be slightly more challenging for him to hold onto his office: his name doesn’t rhyme.

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