An embarrassment to our state

By: - October 14, 2011 2:48 pm

The N.C. Department of Labor hits rock bottom

It’s been common knowledge for years to those who follow state government that the North Carolina Department of Labor has become a bad joke under the “leadership” of state Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry. Once nationally recognized as a place in which worker safety and well-being received prompt and quality attention, the agency has in recent years all but fallen apart. Though several good agency employees soldier on, doing their best to be good public servants, Berry and her cronies have hosed things up so badly that it is always an uphill fight to accomplish anything worthwhile.

As was noted in this space almost three years ago:

“Commissioner Cherie Berry has pursued what might be most charitably described as a ‘minimalist’ approach to her job. Though paying official lip service to the notion that workplace safety is her top priority, Berry has done virtually nothing in eight years to advance that cause in a new or affirmative way. For the most part, she has pursued an approach in which she purports to work with employers in a cooperative rather than and adversarial manner. In reality, it has been an approach in which she mostly does what she can to minimize fines and other tough enforcement actions.

Not surprisingly, it has been an approach that has found favor with employers. Her own official website brags of awards she has received (but not the campaign contributions, of course) from groups of manufacturers, home builders and contractors.”

And so it has continued to go throughout Berry’s third term. It’s now been almost four years since Berry’s dismal duty-shirking performance was documented in a lengthy and award-winning series in the Charlotte Observer on the state’s frequently horrific poultry industry. Naturally, nothing of substance has come from the Department in response.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse

And, still, Berry and her lackeys within the agency look for more ways to hit new lows and further sully the reputation of a once-energetic public watchdog.

Recently, after having reached their breaking point when it came to enduring the stalling and inaction of the Department, lawyers at the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health office asking that federal officials intervene.

The September 30 letter explains in great detail how, time and again, Berry’s office has failed to take even the minimal necessary steps to address appalling conditions on and in the state’s farms and poultry plants. Among other things, the letter explains how the Department has:

*Frequently turned a blind eye toward serious sanitation violations;

*Drastically reduced penalties for employers to the point where they have zero deterrent effect;

*Failed to employ enough Spanish-speaking investigators; and

*Failed to conduct sufficient or adequate labor camp inspections (The letter highlights a recent report conducted by the Wake Forest University of School of Medicine that found most camps “suffer from violations such as a lack of functioning bathroom or laundry facilities, overcrowding, rodent infestation/lack of proper trash disposal facilities, and no resident trained in first aid”).

The letter goes on to say that not only are inspections too few in number and inadequate, but that, where there are inspections, the standards are pathetically insufficient. One “standard” requires one toilet for every 15 workers. It even specifies that a portable toilet or outhouse will suffice. To make matters even worse, there are scores of unlicensed camps that are never inspected at all.

Berry’s shocking response

This Wednesday, the Commissioner’s official spokesperson, a woman named Dolores Quesenberry wrote the following in an email to reporter Tom Breen of AP regarding the matter.

This is what she said:

“Thanks Tom. Here’s our official statement:

The letter was not addressed to us. It was addressed to Secretary Michaels, so we’ll wait and see what Washington has to say.

This letter is just a political stunt to promote a leftist agenda. We have asked advocates over and over for addresses. They’re always talking about unregistered camps and horrible conditions, yet they will not provide addresses or locations. If they did, we’d go and inspect. Instead of playing politics, we need to find solutions to everyday problems and help the hardworking men and women of our agricultural community. So the question that should be asked is, is Legal Aid actually trying to help people or are they just trying to advance their political agenda?

Dolores Quesenberry
Director of Communications
N.C. Department of Labor”

Did we hear that right?

“A political stunt to promote a leftist agenda”?

Dedicated lawyers who’ve spent decades of their lives toiling in some of our state’s least-desirable places writing a detailed and thoughtful letter to a bureaucrat in Washington in hopes of getting some action – any action – out of a long moribund state regulator to help some of our state’s most exploited workers is a “a political stunt to promote a leftist agenda”?

Since when did providing toilets to human beings become “leftist”?

Surely this woman cannot be that seriously delusional. And surely she could not have dared to author such an absurd and offensive email were it not an accurate reflection of her boss’s beliefs.

Going forward

By any standards of common sense and human decency, any public servant who participated in, authorized or approved such an ignorant and mean-spirited bit of correspondence ought to resign. The email and the attitudes and behavior it reflects are not worthy of a public official who acts in all of our names.

If Berry and her assistant had even a modicum of decency or respect for the workers of the state they’re supposedly sworn to protect, they would depart state employment tomorrow.

Unfortunately, when someone has spent 11 years hoodwinking the public to the tune of well over a million dollars in taxpayer-funded salary, there’s no reason to expect her to develop a conscience.

Unlike the workers forced to endure poison and squalor on a daily basis, we won’t be holding our breath.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.