From Jeremy Sprinkle, NC AFL-CIO

“Virgil didn’t do anything wrong. He just went to work.”

RALEIGH (April 28, 2020) – Local working people, officials, and community members commemorated Workers Memorial Day on Tuesday, April 28th, to honor workers who have died or suffered illness or injuries while on the job with video messages and selfies posted online using #WMD2020. They also spoke out against the NC Department of Labor (NCDOL) and the Trump administration, which has weakened worker safety rules and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than protecting working people at their workplaces and ensuring their safe return home to their families.

The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 178 workers were killed in North Carolina in 2018, and many more suffered from occupational diseases. This year, thousands more workers’ lives are being lost to COVID-19 because workers are not getting necessary protections at work — which would save lives and stop the spread of this very contagious virus.

Workplace fatalities have risen significantly in North Carolina, especially when compared to the national average, according to a report by the nonpartisan NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. Since 2013, NCDOL has presided over a 48 percent increase in deaths on the job, according to its own measure, and a 63 percent increase according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Every American has the right to a safe and healthy workplace. Hardworking men and women are putting in long hours to protect our communities and deserve to know that they’re going to make it home at the end of the day. North Carolina families are mourning their loved ones, especially during this pandemic.” –MaryBe McMillan, president, NC State AFL-CIO

“Our government and business leaders should be protecting working people’s lives above all else — including farmworkers whose essential labor keeps food on our tables during the pandemic. Instead, they continue to prioritize profits over people. Action is overdue. We stand with working people that are speaking up for safe jobs and stronger protections.” –Melinda Wiggins, executive director, Student Action with Farmworkers

“The scriptures of the Christian faith tradition are filled with injunctions on behalf of workers. Moving far beyond the simple commandment to pay workers what they are owed when they are owed it, Christian scripture is clear about valuing the integrity of each worker who is putting a real piece of him or herself into the work she or he produces. As our workers give their bodies and sometimes even their lives, we stand with them today to honor that sacrifice.” –Rev. Jennifer Copeland, president, NC Council of Churches

“Workers’ lives have intrinsic value, and NCDOL is not adequately protecting those lives in North Carolina in the face of COVID. Even before the epidemic, it’s been long clear that NCDOL’s hands-off approach to workplace protections has been ineffective at preventing workplace deaths — penalties are too low, enforcement is too lax, and investigations are too few to deter bad actor employers from putting their workers’ lives at risk. But now more than ever, NCDOL needs to take strong action to protect workers on the job.” –Allan Freyer, director, NC Workers’ Rights Project

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), promising every worker the right to a safe job. Ever since, working people have fought to gain necessary health and safety rules that have saved precious lives and prevented injuries and illnesses on the job.

But the Trump administration has allowed business associations to hold back commonsense measures that would prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19; it did not heed the labor movement’s early call for protections; and the administration did not act quickly to secure testing, workplace safety plans, and personal protective equipment. This is criminal. We will not let them turn back the clock and destroy the progress we have made to keep workers safe.

Making matters worse, as the federal government shirks its responsibility to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the N.C. Department of Labor, which has statutory authority over OSHA administration in our state, has refused to step up by issuing its own emergency infectious disease standard. Absent such a standard, workers of employers who violate social distancing guidelines are being told to call local law enforcement. Telling vulnerable workers to call the cops on their boss is absurd and unacceptable.

Working people across America are joining together to fight back against these attacks and are calling for the state and federal governments to put working people’s health and safety above corporate interests. It is critical for safety agencies to enact emergency rules that will hold employers accountable and protect workers from infectious diseases like COVID-19 at work. We will not let the Trump administration nor NC Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry leave workers unprotected as they battle this disaster.

“I not only lost one of my childhood friends, but a UAW Local 5286 brother,” said local union president Scott McAllister on the passing of Virgil Sutton, who worked at the Freightliner plant in Gastonia, North Carolina, and died of COVID-19 on April 5th. Sutton, who is survived by his wife and two sons, led his church’s recovery ministry. “Virgil didn’t do anything wrong,” said his pastor Austin Rammell. “He just went to work.”